Friday Night Film Series: Starving the Beast

Kate Conlan

On Friday, September 8, Colgate screened Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities as part of its Friday Night Film Series. Directed by Steve Mims, this powerful film discussed at length the attempts of politicians to reform public higher education and the political problems that go hand-in-hand with these attempts. Well-known universities including University of Texas (Austin), Texas A&M University, University of Virginia (UVA), University of Wisconsin (Madison) and Louisiana State University were among those featured in the movie.

The first part of the film highlighted attempts made by the Texas state government to reform education at the UT Austin and Texas A&M. It particularly focused on the efforts of Jeff Sandefer and Governor Rick Perry. Sandefer, a wealthy businessman who ran into opposition at the University of Texas for his teaching methods, used his money and power to present his issues with the public education system to Perry. Sandefer wanted to implement his “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for public higher education in all Texas public universities. These solutions included giving state funding directly to students, creating accrediting alternatives, splitting teaching and research budgets and changing tenure standards, among other things. Pressures from the government mounted on the Texas public universities, leading Perry to appoint people to the University of Texas Board of Regents he knew would support the new reforms.  Nevertheless, Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas, stood his ground against the new reforms, believing in the more traditional goals of the university system. He was forced to resign in 2014.  

A similar phenomenon occurred at UVA in 2012. The university’s board of directors forced the resignation of university President Teresa Sullivan because they believed they were falling behind other universities, particularly in regard to online course offerings. Board members wanted to act with strategic dynamism, adapting quickly to the way that some other universities were running, while Sullivan believed that a university must use incrementalism to make sure that students and staff were adapting to changes and were happy with the way things were running. Eventually, the faculty at UVA used a vote of no confidence in their board to reinstate Sullivan as President.

The film went on to discuss other problems currently plaguing public universities, specifically fiscal problems. Government cuts to public higher education are seriously hurting these universities. In 2015, Louisiana State University was on the verge of filing for “academic bankruptcy” and shutting its doors for at least a year due to severe budget cuts from the state.  While this did not end up happening, the university still faced budget cuts of about 80 percent.

Tax cuts can affect the teaching quality at these universities as well. For example, tax cuts in Wisconsin led to a change in tenure policy at the University of Wisconsin. The policy change allowed the government to hire and fire faculty at the university, regardless of previous tenure.  Many students and staff worry that this new policy will force the best professors to leave the University of Wisconsin to go to smaller private institutions that can offer tenure and research funding. The security that these public universities are now failing to provide thus derives from their financial situation.

Overall, this powerful film points out the problems that come with operating public universities like businesses and treating students as consumers. As taxes that were previously allocated for public education continue to be cut and student tuition and fees continue to rise, student debt increases astronomically. Mims makes it clear that he believes the government is creating a public higher education system that is designed to fail. As regulations and policies continue to change, many of the excellent professors at public universities are likely to transfer to private institutions where they can get tenure and research funding, leaving public institutions lacking good faculty. Consequently, public institutions can become far inferior to the expensive private universities which, unfortunately, many students cannot afford to attend.  For this reason, he believes, the public university system is in crisis.

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