Documentary on Public Universities Features UVA

Oct 3, 2016

A new documentary is making the rounds of big cities and college towns – spreading concern about political forces trying to reform state universities – to make them more like businesses.

Starving the Beast was produced by Bill Banosky, a businessman from Austin and his filmmaker friend Steve Mims.  They were alarmed when Governor Rick Perry began appointing people to the University of Texas board – people who appeared to agree with this guy -- Jeff Schalin of the Pope Center for Higher Education – a conservative institute in North Carolina:

“A lot of professors see themselves as change agents for young people.," he says in the film. "They feel that it’s their job to rip them out of the ideas that they developed through family, church, local community, their high school, whatever, and introduce them to a different way of thinking, and very often that way of thinking is somewhat to the left, and this is not what education is for.”

And with Texas entrepreneur and Perry campaign donor Jeff Sandefer who told the producers, “I don’t think that the professors of humanities anywhere have proven without a doubt that their work is so priceless that it should be preserved.  Shakespeare?  Yes, I agree.  Faulkner, maybe, and ass zag taxpayer or a parent or a student paying tuition, I should have a right to say whether I want my money going to you or not.”

He sees college students as consumers and thinks professors should be judged  through student surveys and the amount of money they bring in for research.

And then, says producer Banosky, there are those who want to cut federal dollars for research, because they think university studies are inefficient. 

“They fundamentally believe that these things are much better left in private hands.  Of course the problem there is the fruits of the research are held by private interests as opposed to public interests.”

The documentary shows how free market think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and conservative businessmen like the Kochs and Waltons are promoting their ideas at state universities nationwide. UVA Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan is featured in the film -- offering this explanation.

“As state governments have disinvested from institutions of higher education, public universities have had to scramble for private money.  This had a corrupting influence.  An institution would approach a rich donor.  The rich donor would put terms or expectations on this donation, and the university was in no position to resist. Once you invite that dynamic into a university, you are severing its interests from that of the public.”

Starving the Beast shows how ideologues persuaded lawmakers that universities could no longer operate as they had for centuries – as places that celebrated learning for its own sake and offered professors tenure so they could teach without fear of political reprisals.  Now, Vaidhyanathan says some powerful donors think college should simply train the workforce of the future as cheaply as possible:

“We can blow out the walls of the classroom. We can plug people into digital networks and download information into them.so we don’t need to have libraries or faculty. We can have a small collection of super star well-known faculty members distributing the very same content throughout a networked public.  It can all be done super cheaply.  As a result, they’ve started a pretty fervent political campaign to de-fund 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 not to the state, the nation or the world.”

The film, showing this week at Charlottesville’s Violet Crown Theater, traces the  impact of such thinking from Texas to Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Louisiana.  It shows how each school had to fight to preserve a tradition of liberal arts learning and research for the public good.  At LSU, the president said the school would be forced to shut down after the state proposed a massive budget cut.  The crisis was averted only when wealthy donors realized that would mean no football in the fall, and state leaders found new sources of revenue.