‘Starving the Beast’ examines the raging war on U.S. higher education – New Release Review

One of the largest, most combative issues in the current election is the cost of an education in the United States. Some argue that the high cost of tuition is to blame for massive student debt. Others proclaim that the quality of education students receive doesn’t hold up to expectations. In all cases, someone else is always to blame and no one wants to pay for it. Starving the Beast: The Battle To Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities, the latest documentary from writer/director Steve Mims (Incendiary: The Willingham Case) and producer Bill Banowsky, walk audiences through the events of 2008-2016 to tell the stories of six historically high-quality public higher education schools and the industrial ideology that is currently attempting to dismantle them in an exploration to discover why our education system is running aground.

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Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia.

Seeking to identify the root cause of the behind the scenes tampering of the U.S. higher education system, Starving the Beast goes beyond the visible collateral damage of high tuitions and high student debt to uncover the truth from normally hidden away sources. Audiences know that students struggle to pay tuition and higher education Presidents are under enormous scrutiny to maintain a high quality learning environment with increasingly reduced funding each year. Starving the Beast seeks to place a spotlight on the forces at work behind the scenes who seek to dismantle the educational system as it was designed by former Presidents Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln. Transforming institutions of higher learning from incubators of world-changing ideas to industrial factories spitting out artless minds focused solely on profit.

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Abraham Lincoln statue at the University of Wisconsin.

What Audiences Can Expect

Audiences will immediately assume that Starving the Beast is intended as a political statement due to the number of politicians featured in the film; however, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Rather, Starving the Beast presents information from sources from both viewpoints of the issue in an opportunity to present their side in each case study. Mims sits down with high-profile subjects close to the events, in addition to gathering footage from conventions, government meetings, institution hearings, and news broadcasts. For example, he interviews Jeff Sandefer, the author of Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education and founder of Acton School of Business, a man whose ideas inspired Governor Rick Perry to overhaul Texas’ entire educational system. Another set of interviews occurs with both Bill Powers, the 28th President of the University of Texas, and Wallace Hall, Regent of the University of Texas, who dispute over educational procedures lead to years of contention and over $1 million dollars in tax payer money. Over and again, Mims presents individuals whose decisions – on either side of the educational scale – resulted in the current higher education crisis in which students across the country are face increased tuition costs and fewer funded programs. Audiences may expect Mims to declare one singular event or one individual to blame – because blame is almost always cast somewhere onto someone – instead, Mims simply presents each series of events as they occurred with zero commentary from either himself or the narrator. Like an educator with his students, Mims cleverly runs interview after interview, broadcast after broadcast, and doesn’t lead the audience in any direction. Undoubtedly, the strongest feature of the documentary is its insistence not to take a stance, but to compel audiences to make up their own minds.

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Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

The Case Studies

Starving the Beast doesn’t just tell the story of the schools in their case studies, but brings to light all the factors that came into play. In the six universities featured, each have a slightly different tale, each more complicated than the last. For example, in the segment focused on Louisiana State University, Mims suggests that the point of origin begins with Governor Bobby Jindal when he signed a pledge not to raise taxes while in office. This decision would prove costly when the recession hit, forcing Jindal to cut funds from various departments across the state to keep Louisiana functioning and afloat. From 2007-2016, LSU received a total 82% cut, dropping the budget from $1.4 billion budget in 2007-2008 to $285 million in 2015-2016. Such a drastic cut in finances nearly caused LSU school President F. King Alexander to close the school for a single year to make up the difference. Similarly, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker passed Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which included a $300 million budget cut from universities in the state, and removed tenured positions from state-funded institutions. This has three drastic impacts: 1) the University of Wisconsin, one of the top ranked research universities, lost a great deal of government funding preventing them to do work that has global implications. 2) Act 10 included a provision that the school couldn’t raise tuition to make up the difference, which meant UW had to perform the same duties with less funds. 3) Educators no longer had the protection of tenure, resulting in a drastic change in the dynamic between the politics of the school and how the teacher functions in the classroom. Meanwhile, at the University of Texas, influence from educator/author Jeff Sandefer reached Governor Rick Perry, who instituted a revolutionary change that shifted support of entire programs from the school president into a student feedback-based system. Programs success or failure became intrinsically connected to how well the students felt they were educated. In addition to these three universities, Starving the Beast shares stories from Texas A & M, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which follow similar paths.

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James Carville giving the May 2015 LSU Commencement Address.

History Is Relentless

Starving the Beast is going to make audiences angry; Stomp your feet, scream at the wall, wail at the sky angry. And audiences should be angry. The educational system in the United States is rapidly diminishing and will continue to do so unless changes are made to the way education is viewed. Education is not a commodity like oil or wheat, whose value is determined by various factors. Though utilizing the model of disruptive innovation works in the business sector, the results are more dramatic in the education field. Mims reminds audiences that Presidents Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln designed the public higher education system to be open to all who seek to learn. One of the interview subjects, James Carville, a well-known political commentator, puts it best in his May 15th 2015 Louisiana State University Commencement address that “History is relentless. History seeks the truth. It seeks is as relentlessly as the river seeks the gulf.” Educational institutions provide safe havens for students of all ages to discover the truth and those institutions are under siege. Though the desire to instill positive change is real on both sides, audiences will likely walk away thinking only one side is correct. Impressively, Mims doesn’t provide an answer, though he does show you where to look.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Writer’s Note: For the last four years I have served as an Adjunct Faculty member of Central Piedmont Community College, a state-funded institution in North Carolina.

For more information on Starving the Beast visit: http://www.starvingthebeast.net/

Upcoming Screenings:

Friday, September 9

New York, NY

IFC Center

323 Sixth Avenue at West Third

 

Friday, September 16

Austin, TX

Violet Crown Cinemas

434 W 2nd Street

 

Los Angeles, CA

Laemmie NoHo

5240 Lankershim Blvd

 

Madison, WI

Sundance Cinemas 608

430 N Midvale Blvd

 

Friday, September 23

Santa Fe, NM

Violet Crown Cinema

1606 Alcaldesa Street

 

Friday, September 24

Charlotte, NC

Charlotte Film Festival in partnership with Ayrsley Grand Cinemas 14

9110 Kings Parada Blvd

For more dates as they are announced, go to: http://www.starvingthebeast.net/see-the-film/

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