Thursday, September 29, 2016

STARVING THE BEAST: To Fund Or Not To Fund Higher Education

Opening Friday exclusively in the triangle area at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh:

STARVING THE BEAST (Dir. Steve Mims, 2016)

The full title of Austin,Texas-based filmmaker Steve Mims’ new documentary is STARVING THE BEAST: THE BATTLE TO DISRUPT AND REFORM AMERICA’S PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES, which is quite a mouthful.

But it’s perhaps an apt one because there’s a lot to take in info and opinion-wise with this doc about the arguments over funding or defunding in the U.S. higher education system.

For those who don’t know, the phrase “starving the beast” means a political strategy employed by American conservatives in order to limit government spending (thanks, Wikipedia!), so Mims’ film focuses on what narrator Brian Ramos describes as “one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights; a struggle between powerful forces that will shape every aspect of public higher education for generations to come.”

The film largely sets its eyes on the debate in Mims’ home state of Texas at the University of Texas and Texas A&M, but it also explores the conflicts that the University of Wisconsin (UW), University of Virginia (UV), University of North Carolina (UNC), and Louisiana State University (LSU) have had (and still have) with the issue.

Democratic guru James Carville sets the tone of the doc as it opens on his commencement address at his alma mater, LSU, in May of 2015, in which he heatedly denounces political advocate Grover Norquist and then Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for their attempts to commoditize education: “You can charge for it, you can raise tuition; it’s just another thing out there - it’s a barrel of oil, it’s an ounce of gold, it’s a stock, it’s anything.”

Carville appears throughout the film offering his matter-of-fact wisdom as one of the good guys in this debate – who the film is obviously on the side of, that is. Other folks on the good side providing insights include University of Georgia Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol, Peter Flawn, Ph.D. (President Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin), and former UT President Billy Powers.

The bad guys are led by teacher/author Jeff Sandefer, whose “Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education” proposal involving a market-driven approach to reforming college education had a fan in Governor Rick Perry. Unlike many of his comrades on the side of eliminating tenure, cutting arts programs, and running colleges more like businesses, Sandefer allowed himself to be interviewed for the film.

Sandefer is joined on the dark side by Wallace Hall, Regent of the University of Texas, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the aforementional Norquist and Jindal, and the beyond evil Koch Brothers, who are, of course, pulling the strings behind the Republican party (there’s a great clip of Bernie Sanders eviscerating them at some hearing).

Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan maybe makes the clearest argument when he says “these reformers decided that universities were the problem, and so they got the problem exactly upside down. As a result they’ve started a pretty fervent political campaign to defund universities to shift the burden of the cost of universities to the students themselves, under this mistaken guise that students are consumers rather than students and future citizens, that the value of that student’s education belongs entirely to that student and to the society in general, not to the state, not to the nation, not to the world.”

This argument is compelling, but it gets a bit repetitive as variations of it keep coming. Producer Bill Banowsky said that the film is balanced and doesn’t show that it’s “the Jeff Sandefers and Wallace Halls are completely wrong and that James Carville is completely right,” but the sinister music that plays (courtesy of composer Graham Reynolds) when certain people are giving their views says different.

Not that I'm knocking that device here because it worked for me!

Now, the idea of seeing an doc about the subject of education funding full of wall-to-wall talk on top of statistics, TV news footage, newspaper headlines, scanned over internet articles, and even YouTube clips of interviews may sound boring, and may not be as appealing at some of your other movie choices out there, but STARVING THE BEAST packs a lot of info, viewpoints, and insights into its 95 minutes and for the most part sorts them out entertainingly.

It will help to have a modicum of interest in the subject of what’s wrong with the ideology behind higher education these days. Otherwise it’ll just be a smorgasbord of facts and theories to those who never paid attention in school to begin with.

* UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol will lead a Q & A after the Rialto Theater's 7pm screening of the new documentary STARVING THE BEAST on Friday, September 30th.

More later...

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