'Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America's Public Universities': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A detailed policy doc about an important trend.

Should higher education be "disrupted"?

Who gains when public universities start to think of themselves more like businesses and treat students like customers? Are America's public research universities, long a magnet for brilliant students around the world, in need of reinvention by conservative businessmen? What is education for, anyway? These are just a few of the questions raised in Starving the Beast, Steve Mims' look at trends in higher education that are often poorly understood by a public whose attention is focused on skyrocketing tuition and student debt. Sometimes dry but cogent and much needed, the documentary should earn respect at fests but will play best on the small screen.

Opening with a fiery LSU commencement address by James Carville, who decries the commoditization of education, the doc soon traces that trend back to a couple of sources. Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, which urged disruption, was embraced "like gospel" in Silicon Valley and soon applied in many fields where, according to Mims' interviewees, its lessons made no sense. That paved the way for Jeff Sandefer, a former University of Texas business professor whose "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" proposals addressed education specifically, emphasizing things like evaluating teachers through student feedback.

Sandefer's ideas were embraced by Texas governor Rick Perry, making U.T. and Texas A&M good places for Mims to observe some nasty politicking — impeachment of regents, pressure on deans. But he does venture beyond Texas' borders, looking at the crisis faced by president Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia, and at huge cuts at LSU, where the state's budget shortfall caused uncertainty that the university's doors would open in the fall.

These stories are all so interwoven with statehouse politics that Mims finds himself discussing everything from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's war on collective bargaining to the vast influence of Art Pope, a businessman described here as North Carolina's version of the Koch Brothers.

Though never hard to follow, the discussion can sometimes challenge an unwonky viewer's attention span. But it contains big insights for those who wade in — and helps lay the groundwork for debates over whether our universities should be designed to broadly increase society's capacity for reason and insight, or should have their productivity monitored moment-by-moment by people who believe, as Sandefer does, that "everything can be measured in dollars."

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production company: Railyard Films
Director-screenwriter-director of photography-Editor: Steve Mims
Producer: Bill Banowsky
Composer: Graham Reynolds

Not rated, 95 minutes