Starving the Beast was not the best documentary playing at SXSW in 2016, but it may well be the most important.
An an age where news is disseminated through opinion pieces and Facebook shares, where the line between editorial and reporting is hopelessly blurred, documentaries are indispensable tools that fill the gaps between our awareness of sound bites and a true understanding of the issues confronting us.
In ninety-five minutes, director Steve Mims traces the origins of educational reform, drawing a line from Clayton Christensen’s meta-narrative about “disruptive innovation” to battles over the administration of public universities in Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Carolina.
The central conflict that is depicted is less about ideology than money. Over and over we see through graphs and testimonials how state legislatures have decreased funding to public universities in order to free revenue for tax cuts or freezes. At LSU, we are told the portion of the operating budget met through state appropriations went from 75% to 13%. Is it any wonder tuition has skyrocketed?
The justification for shifting the burden of paying for public universities from the state to the student is simple on the surface but problematic the more you look at it. The student is thought to be the sole beneficiary of the education and should therefore bear the costs before he or she reaps the benefit. The counter-argument is that an educated citizenry is a public good–that we all benefit from having informed and well-trained neighbors. Additionally the film argues that the research mandate for public institutions grew out of the realization in the wake of World War II that technological advancement (which is fueled by research) helps maintain global and social political strength. The Federal Government would then help fund the infrastructure for research and education while the states would provide the human capital.
One of the ways that Starving the Beast is most effective is in the way it ties events in disparate states together, showing that so-called educational reform is a conflict being waged nationwide and not simply an esoteric local battle being contested in a few ivory towers. The film reminds us of two pieces of national legislation that could drastically, perhaps irreversibly, change the way public universities operate. The “HERO” act would have federal education funding given directly to states who could distribute it not just to accredited institutions but to any teaching program “deemed worthy.” The Investing in Student Success Act (championed by former presidential candidate Marco Rubio in the film) would encourage students to fund their studies through contracts with individual investors who would then be entitled to a portion of that student’s earnings for up to thirty years.
Mims told the audience at the SXSW film festival that he was convinced that those seeking to de-fund public universities honestly believed their own ideology and think they are doing the right thing. Consequently, one of the most impressive features of Starving the Beast is the recognition that those who believe that strong, independent public universities are a public good need to continue to make an argument for their worth. The film allows them to do so, and the voices that articulate the historic and current rationale for public funding of education are articulate and persuasive.