When a subject as important as education systems becomes the subject of a documentary, there often are too many entanglements to grasp the heft of the issue at hand. Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Universities is complicated. Documentary filmmaking is often educates or illuminates a particular issue from an in depth, intellectual, and analytical perspective. Sometimes the details become too wrapped up, weighted with over-explanation, and tackle too much in too short of time.
Starving the Beast’s director, Steve Mims, describes a crisis in academia that he pins on one man’s vendetta against the public state university system. Jeff Sandefer’s “seven solutions” is modeled on a cost-benefit analysis of professors within a given university. The students report through a review system how the professor performed in the classroom, and the professor receives benefits for excellent reviews. The data reported by the students is then available publicly. This is one method of reducing the tenure system to professors who the students deem worthy of the status. Additionally, according to the solutions, money is divided between teaching and research, and aims to create brand new accreditation systems for non-degree earning institutions.
Does that sound like a lot? It is. Keep in mind, if you attended a private institution like I did, several of these ideas might be in place, or if you’ve recently attended a school of higher education you may have encountered these plans. These ideas restructure schools into business models where students become consumers of a product, but the flaw of that thinking is that students are not consumers. They are students: the value of the school comes not only from the effort that they put into learning, but the benefit of education, regardless of the degree pursued. This is the goal of publicly funded higher education: to benefit the state (and therefore the rest of the country and world), and fund research in a peer-reviewed system of experts who are training the next generation of experts.
Sandefer’s plan is supposed to put the students first, but put in action, the results have been questionable at best, and resulted in a number of scandals across the United States. Mims argues that Sandefer’s personal vendetta against The University of Texas at Austin started over a decade ago, for not implementing his popular and innovative plans as rule when he was a lecturer/adjunct at the school. He left to start his own school and eventually published his seven solutions, which then were picked up by Texas Governor Rick Perry. It only gets more tangled from there, diving into taxes, the board of regents, Title IV, protests, resignations, etc.
Now is the time that I’ll disclose that Mims is himself a professor at UT Austin, so not only is much of the film from the perspective of the Texas system, it also is reliant on interviews from members of the faculty at both UT Austin and Texas A&M. All of the subsequent interviews, including with James Carville, are framed in the shadow of this information. This is personal.
Mims takes the viewers with him across the country, to LSU, UVA, UNC, and Wisconsin. The Koch brothers get a mention. There are fingers pointed, interviews given with “the other side,” and tons of plans thrown about. There is an awful lot of talking. It is clear that some ideas sound better on paper than they do in action, and Sandefer admits that the schools didn’t properly enact his solutions.
Perhaps the problem with this film is simply that there is so much to talk about when we do talk about education reform. It’s only made that much more difficult to understand when the focus of the film is education nationwide, rather than just the Texas schools. Mims makes strong arguments in favor of teachers and, oddly for many who have attended higher education recently, the administration.
Beyond the power struggles between the institutions and the state, there is a glaring hole in the conversation as given: where are the students? Where are the interviews with non-tenured faculty? What do they think?
When the viewer is given a film full of numbers, policy, and politics, there needs to be a real focus on the real lives impacted. The film is valuable, certainly, but there is an overwhelming amount of information to process in an hour and a half. It could be stronger as a series of films rather than suffer from the bloat. Starving the Beast makes it clear that there is a problem with education reform as it has been implemented so far, but what are the tangible impacts on the people of the state, outside of the in fighting? The students are shouldering this monetary burden, so why aren’t they in the film?