What is the purpose of higher education? It is to create good, well-rounded citizens or compliant corporate cogs? The public universities of the United States were founded on the former principle, but powerful forces today are trying to reshape them for the latter purpose… and they’re winning. In Starving the Beast, documentarian Steve Mims lays out with calm, terrifying clarity how the usual conservative villains — Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers play starring roles — are leading a concerted effort to transform taxpayer-funded institutes of learning and research into profit-making ventures in which students are consumers and universities are service providers. Out are tenure, academic freedom, learning for the sheer joy of discovery and personal growth, and research missions that make these schools the very best on the planet; in are massive reductions in public funding, shifts in the expense to students (leading to enormous personal debt), requirements that professors become profit leaders, and an overall dumbing down of the entire endeavor. Proponents of this “reform” — a word that usually means change for the better, but not here — think it’s a good thing if the highest measure of a university’s success is student evaluation of professors! The potential for disaster is enormous — threats to national security and prosperity are only the beginning of it — and the process is well underway. Mims focuses on the particulars of how some of the most highly regarded state university systems — in Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa — are being undermined, but it’s happening everywhere in the US. Be very afraid.
Starving the Beast is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City. See the film’s official site for other cities and dates.