Saving the starving college beast

A new film serves as a wake up call to reign in political excess at public universities
By: | Issue: November, 2016
October 31, 2016

As a conservative political strategy, “starving the beast” means to deprive an entity of funding to force it to reduce spending.

Steve Mims’ new film, “Starving the Beast,” documents a political and philosophical shift that seeks to reframe public higher education—not as a public good for society, but as a “value proposition” to be borne by those pursuing a college degree.

The film, which premiered in August, examines a growing power struggle across the nation as political and market-oriented forces push to disrupt and reform America’s public universities.

Focusing on dramas still playing out at the University of Wisconsin, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Louisiana State University, University of Texas and Texas A&M, the film goes to the core debate of what public higher education is about.

Conservative think tanks and foundations, such as CATO and the American Enterprise Institute, may not make a lot of noise, but they have an enormous influence on higher education.

Their reason for being is to come up with policies that can be implemented at the federal and state levels. Their commonality is that they have a market orientation. They believe in the free market and minimal regulation, and they want to bring those ideas into public higher education.

They’ll say, “Here’s the problem. These places are old and inefficient. They have way too many employees. The whole thing needs to be modernized so that it costs less to go there, and we can teach more people.”

That’s their perspective, and it’s clearly an honest debate. Their core belief is that the market can and should solve all problems.

That’s opposite of the original founding philosophy for the schools—going all the way back to Jefferson and then Lincoln with the Morrill Act—that we’re going to take the state’s resources and put them into these schools.

Yes, they may have always been inefficient, but we’re going to pour the money in because the return on investment will be from the professionals who come out of this. We’re going to get engineers and doctors and lawyers and people who know how to make agriculture work. They’re going to build out the country, and we’ll help make that happen.

How did that debate eventually play out in Texas?

There’s a comment in the film from the Weekly Standard—that nobody knew there was a problem in Texas until Rick Perry decided there was one, and he got the idea from one of those think tanks.

Historically, governors have been wise enough to realize what they know and what they don’t know, and they’ll stand back and leave it to the experts. That’s changed. You have Perry who was convinced by one group that higher education had to be redone, and he was willing to do it.

He appointed regents who would enact his agenda to remake public universities structurally from the inside out. It resulted in a couple of people at Texas A&M being out of jobs, and they tried to get rid of President Powers at UT Austin.

It became this weird story—weird in the sense that the business of a board of regents is usually pretty boring. It’s about spending money and building buildings. Suddenly, Perry’s agenda to change things came down and everything was thrown into turmoil, so much so that they tried to impeach one of the regents at UT Austin.

Your initial project was just to document what was happening in Texas.

Right, but as we started shooting and doing interviews, we bumped into people who said, “Wait a second, this kind of thing is not unique to Texas.” It’s happening in different manifestations elsewhere.

So we got into the story of University of Virginia, we got into the story of the University of Wisconsin, then Louisiana State and finally Chapel Hill. We found that we were bumping into some of the same influences in terms of institutions, in terms of think tanks, and some of the same characters kept popping up in the story.

I have to say it was really fun to discover that and try to connect the dots—the common situations—among all these places. It turned into a much bigger story.

“Starving the beast” is a concept that goes back at least to the 1970s, and it doesn’t have a good track record. Why do we keep going back to it?

Because it’s nice to pay less taxes. If we could all get away without paying taxes—and still somehow manage to do what a government has to do—I don’t think anybody would complain about that. But it doesn’t work that way.

I’ll give you an example. In Texas, our legislature meets every two years. The last time they met they cut business taxes by $4.5 billion as a way to stimulate business. This was at a time when the Texas economy was good and oil was over a $100 a barrel. Since then oil has dropped to something like $3 a barrel. That’s a huge loss of revenue for state government.

We already know there will be cuts for all discretionary spending—and, unfortunately, public higher ed is considered discretionary. Where will the money come from to fill that hole? It’s going to come from the people.

The government will continue taking money out of the system until the day they realize, “Wait a second, we’ve got to rethink this because we’re actually undermining the very institutions that have made us a great country.” Until that epiphany happens, nothing will change.

In the film, James Carville says, “The problem is higher education has no organization for political skills and no coherent voice.”

He’s right. You have to look at the reality on the ground at these places. Everyone at a public university is a state employee, from the president on down. They are getting their paycheck from the state. So people are a little circumspect about what they’ll say and what they won’t say about this.

In Texas—and I think this is the law everywhere—the university can not lobby the state. They’re not allowed to make their own case. You have people who may want to speak up, but they can’t and they can’t lobby. That’s a problem.

An even bigger problem is that people at these universities—faculty and students—largely don’t even know the story. We’ve found this all over the country. Many people at a university live in a bubble. They are there to do research or they are there to be in school. It’s not their job to do a post-mortem on what happened before they arrived. They just want to get their degree.

So, while all these people focus on their lives, the juggernaut just keeps going. For those reasons and more, it’s harder for people to stand up and talk about this in an organized way. As filmmakers, we can make a case that they can’t make.

As the film shows, when state funding declines, universities really have little choice but to raise tuition. But they do a poor job explaining why to the public.

The first step in solving any problem is to acknowledge that you have a problem. Hopefully the film makes that case. We say, “Here’s why we have this problem. Here are the solutions people are offering. You need to decide whether to be involved in this fight or not.” I think that’s the only option. The terrible part of this problem is that these state universities are beholden to the legislatures that fund them. They have to do what they’re told.

But the flip side is that these legislators are elected people. We need to put heat on them and make the case that they are ruining or diminishing an important part of the whole state.

Some critics claim the film takes a liberal slant by featuring people like Carville, but you give as much time, if not more, to allow conservatives like Jeff Sandefer, Grover Norquist and Bobby Jindal to state their case.

We really bent over backward not to make it a partisan thing and we tried to give people a chance to express what they believe, and they did. Sometimes even that is embarrassing in the movie, but they get to say it. That’s what makes it an honest debate.

We try to be objective, but clearly we believe that the retail mission of our public universities is worth preserving and the funding is worth preserving.

Tim Goral is senior editor.