Should higher education be a profitable commodity or a public good? That’s the central question in the documentary “Starving the Beast.” Filmmaker Steve Mims turns his camera on the complicated battle over public universities and comes up with a movie that might be dry, but also feels necessary.
“This is one of the country’s most important and least understood fights,” a narrator warns, and you can see why it’s so hard to grasp. The movie’s sprawling narrative requires significant mental energy just to tease out the knotty mess of interrelated causes and effects.
In essence, this is what Mims presents: Historically, public colleges and universities have been funded by the state because they provide a service to the citizens — not to mention a value to local economies. But in recent decades, proponents of lower taxes and small government have challenged the idea that states should be footing the bill. Shouldn’t these universities be making their own money? And, if they’re not, what’s wrong with them?
Those questions have led to a push in certain states to run universities like businesses. Professors are being assessed based on their student ratings and how much money they can bring to the school. The study of fine arts and the humanities falls by the wayside, because, if it can’t lead to a lucrative career, what’s the point? And as tax-shy states shrink their budgets, funds for public universities get slashed — for example, over the course of nine years, the state of Louisiana went from contributing 75 percent of LSU’s revenue to 13.5 percent. And that has a direct impact on skyrocketing tuition costs.
Defense of the traditional public-funding model comes in interviews with professors, liberal politicians — and the former president of the University of Texas, who lost his job as a result of this debate.
Mims lets both sides of the debate say their piece, although the movie has a liberal tilt and takes regular shots at radical conservatives.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much in the way of visual interest. In between plentiful interviews, we mainly see newspaper headlines flashing across the screen. The subject can prove mind-boggling at times, too, but “Starving the Beast” is still a worthwhile documentary. Learning isn’t always fun, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 95 minutes.