The gutting of America’s public universities is, as Steve Mims says in his documentary Starving the Beast, “one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights.” His film goes far in correcting that, thanks not just to his thorough research, but also a strong narrative and compelling cinematography.
In the name of “disruption,” these schools are increasingly subject to market whims. Research, critical thought, academic freedom — which lead to innovations that move medicine, industry, and civilization forward — are deemed frivolous because they can’t be immediately monetized.
“Shakespeare, yes, I agree,” says oilman-entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer, a proponent of market-based education who went crying to Governor Rick Perry when the University of Texas rejected his simplistic ideas. “Faulkner, maybe — not a big Faulkner fan. But [as a tenured professor] to self-anoint yourself as being so valuable you can’t be measured, as opposed to being measured by readers and scholars through the ages? I think that’s a little presumptuous.” The not-a-little-presumptuous Sandefer is the embodiment of Emerson’s “hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Meanwhile, universities nationwide are in danger of becoming more prohibitively expensive as students themselves are left to make up for extreme budget shortfalls. The film opens with fiery liberal James Carville giving a graduation speech at his alma mater, Louisiana State University, spitting out his words in a frayed LSU cap: “They say that education is a commodity — it’s just another thing out there, it’s a barrel of oil, it’s an ounce of gold, it’s a stock.”
Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities
Written and directed by Steve Mims
Violet Crown Films
Opens September 9, IFC Center