Steve Mims’ new documentary, Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities, explores the defunding of public universities in the United States and the ongoing struggle to shape the future of public higher education. It opens with a description of Thomas Jefferson’s explicit instructions that his role in founding University of Virginia (a public university), rather than his presidency, be commemorated on the obelisk erected next to his grave. The film traces the state of American public universities from their late 18th-century genesis through to 2016, offering a comprehensive look at the development of the financial “crisis” in state-funded colleges and universities and the radical “solutions” being offered to correct it.
Rather than a taxpayer-funded “public good,” these “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” call for universities to be run like businesses with a focus on students as “users of a service” and on top-down management focused on profitability. This model includes aggressive reforms to student and teacher assessment, dissolution of tenure, and, most radically, overhauls to current conceptions about what should be taught in college classrooms.
Recently, a mix of UC Davis faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students and members of the public convened in the Art Annex for an early evening screening of Starving the Beast. The film’s director Steve Mims, who attended the screening, is an award-winning writer and director, whose work includes music videos, commercials and fiction and non-fiction short and feature-length films. A New York Times “Critic’s pick,” his current documentary was described as offering “…a jolt of chilling clarity” by the The Los Angeles Times.
Revealing, funny and unsettling, the film is careful to fairly depict the many facets of its subject. It balances interviews with commentators on both sides of the debate alongside detailed animations of central concepts and it contrasts news footage of protesting students and faculty with imagery of verdant historical college campuses.
Though all disciplines would undergo scrutiny under this system of reform, the humanities and arts are a recurring source for examples of wasteful and “elitist” education among reformist commentators. Among other snide remarks by contributors about the worth of funding “basket weaving” and studies of “sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry,” Jeff Sandefer (a central creator and proponent of the “Solutions”) asserts: “I don’t think that professors of humanities anywhere have proven without a doubt that their work is so priceless that it should [be allowed to continue].”
Sandefer explains that William Shakespeare may remain part of the curriculum, but there are serious questions about including a writer like William Faulkner. At universities that implemented “solution”-inspired reforms, programs for research and outreach to impoverished and minority groups also found themselves on the chopping block.
In an interview with Robert Sims of “Lights, Camera, Austin,” director Steve Mims describes how the film evolved from “an issue of governance” at Texas A&M University and University of Texas at Austin (where Mims teaches film production) that made national headlines. Mims followed the story as the power struggles for political control of these universities grew and he explains that “as [his team] did more and more research, [they] found that this is not unique to Texas–this is unique to Texas in the sense that since about 2008, the genesis of this kind of reform started here–but there’s similar situations across the country.”
Tellingly, the question that kicked off a lively discussion with the filmmaker after the screening was “So, you didn’t cover California?”
–Jennifer Tinonga-Valle, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English