‘Starving the Beast’ examines higher education battle

“Starving the Beast,” a documentary from Austin director Steve Mims and producer Bill Banowsky, will premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival on Sunday — and it makes a compelling argument: A nationwide conservative movement with roots in Austin and elsewhere is aimed at reducing state funding for public universities and threatening access to higher education for those who don’t come from upper-income families.

What’s more, the movement has made significant gains in such places as the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin and Louisiana State, the documentary contends. Over the past few years, all of these universities have seen sizable cuts in funding by state legislatures, often resulting in tuition and fee increases for students — despite the objections of conservatives — and spawning fundraising campaigns aimed at alumni.

Both Mims, who teaches film at UT, and Banowsky, the owner of Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema, say that the current stance of many state governors and legislatures is a big departure from early backing of public universities from such people as Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act of 1862, which laid the groundwork through land grants for the public university system.

Banowsky says he teamed with Mims to make the documentary in part because he comes from an academic background. “My dad was president of Pepperdine and Oklahoma, and I grew up in that environment, and it’s important to note what public higher education has meant to this country, what it’s done for our economy, how it’s helped our military defense,” he says. “To see a trend toward de-investment and the effects it will have was important to point out. Those people who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds are no longer going to be offered the type of education that this country has historically offered at really great public research universities, which have been as good as the great private universities.”

Mims, the director of 2011’s “Incendiary: The Willingham Case,” agrees, but says that “Starving the Beast” has been a challenging film to complete. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to edit, because it has so many stories,” he says. “It’s not just one thing.”

In Texas, it’s about leaders at the University of Texas and their battles with the Board of Regents, notably Wallace L. Hall Jr. In Virginia, it’s about the removal and eventual reinstatement of the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, after she was deemed too slow in the move toward possible transformative innovations like online courses. In Wisconsin, it’s about Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on tenure and his attempt to reshape the university’s mission as meeting “the state’s workforce needs,” while proposing big budget cuts. In North Carolina, it’s about an outspoken, liberal, tenured director of a poverty center who rails against legislators who, in turn, decide to retaliate by shutting down his center. And in Louisiana, it’s about years of cuts in funding from a legislature that’s trying to cope with huge deficits.

Value of college

Underlying much of the debate, as the documentary makes clear, is the conservative notion that a college degree has value and that the state should not be subsidizing that degree — that individual students should pay for it, and that both the university and the students should take a consumerist approach. Also at play is the question of whether liberal arts and social sciences make students more marketable. It’s not entirely coincidental, as the documentary notes, that many academicians in the liberal arts and social sciences are perceived by conservatives as supporting views that might contradict the values of students’ parents or their churches — and that those same conservatives think state taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for such an education.

On the other side is the traditional liberal notion that a public university helps train good citizens, gives them critical-thinking skills and offers a route for talented students from lower-income homes to get a top-notch education.

Both Mims and Banowsky stress that they’re trying to walk a fine line and point out that the conservative movement has merit — that academic institutions have not always been fiscally responsible. In that regard, they interview conservative leaders, including Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer, who offered one of the earliest and most detailed plans to reform higher education, and Hall of the UT Board of Regents, who has been embroiled in a long dispute with administrators over access to records.

But the documentary also gives time to those on the left, including a fiery speech from Democratic Party activist James Carville, who delivers an LSU commencement address decrying higher education cuts and pointing out that spending per student has decreased more than in any other state in the country since 2008.

The Austin experience

The movement came to the fore in Austin in 2008, the documentary explains, when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed several “breakthrough solutions” that he contended would make higher education more consumer-oriented. The solutions, proposed by Sandefer, the founder of Austin’s Acton School of Business and a Perry donor, included bonuses for teachers based solely on student evaluations, paying teachers for the number of students they teach, paying researchers according to research dollars they receive and providing a kind of state-funded voucher for each in-state student, rather than direct appropriations to the university.

It was in this context that Hall, a Perry appointee, began a campaign to make the university’s finances and administration more transparent, leading to numerous records requests and causing conflicts with the university’s president, Bill Powers.

As the documentary shows, there’s a nationwide network of conservative public policy institutes, often funded by such people as the Koch brothers, Texas businessman Tim Dunn and the Pope family of North Carolina. In Texas, two of the main players are the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Austin-based Empower Texans, headed by Michael Quinn Sullivan.

Carville, during an interview with Mims and Banowsky, says academics are no match for these conservative think tanks — and the conservative budget-cutting legislators. “They’re easy pickings,” Carville says, because they’re academics and not prepared to stage organized opposition. “That’s not what they do. They’re teachers and researchers. Maybe they live in a bubble.”

The future

Banowsky says he and Mims tried to keep the documentary “as balanced as we could.”

“We’ve been mindful that there are two sides to this story, and it’s not black and white, and it’s not that the Jeff Sandefers and Wallace Halls are completely wrong and that James Carville is completely right. There’s nuance,” he says.

But Banowsky says he believes that “our investment in public education has been a community good, a social good” and that if the defunding of public universities continues, “then it’s game over. You can’t really invent the institutions that we’ve been building over the last hundred years.”

“Starving the Beast” doesn’t predict the future, and it doesn’t deal with the current administration of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott or his higher education policies. But it does lay out, in clear terms, the ideological battle lines, suggesting that the future of higher education is at a crossroads.

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