Public universities once flush with state dollars have watched that financial support dry up, while facing pressure from education reform groups bent on reconfiguring their business model. This has led to some epic battles that are chronicled in a new documentary called “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities.”

The film, which opens Friday in Washington, posits that the ideal of higher education as a public good is being supplanted by a market-based ideology that views education as a commodity to be consumed by students at their own expense. This philosophical shift underpins fights to reform tenure, accreditation, curriculums and budgeting at flagship universities, such as the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin. The shift is also behind widespread state disinvestment that has left schools like Louisiana State University in financial strain.

The film’s director, Steve Mims, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is no stranger to higher education, and neither is producer William S. Banowsky Jr., whose father served as president of Pepperdine University and the University of Oklahoma. The pair shared their inspiration for the documentary and where they think the future of public higher education is heading. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

What led you to do this film?

Steve Mims: We live in Austin and had followed what was happening at UT and Texas A&M for a while. It dawned on us that it was kind of a unique situation because in the press were accounts of all of this turmoil at the universities and the board of regents because the governor at that time had appointed people whose mission was to remake both of those schools from the inside out in terms of research and governance. We just started following it and started acquiring interviews with people who were involved. That was the genesis of the film.

What do you consider to be the most radical shift in the reform movement that you documented?

William S. Banowsky Jr.: The most important and worrisome shift is in the accessibility to higher education. When higher education was first introduced in this country, the notion was about making public higher education available to anyone regardless of means. That’s what led to the Morrill Land-Grant Act, that’s the way these universities had been seeded and been funded up until about 1980.

In the past 35 years, we’ve seen state funding drop from roughly 60 percent of a school’s budget to roughly 12 percent. We read a lot about how these inefficient universities have got to rein in their costs because tuition has gotten out of control, student debt has gotten out of control, but no one has really dived into the core reason. And the core reason, as this film shows, is we began disinvesting in public higher education in 1980 and haven’t stopped since. As a result of that disinvestment, a lot of people who historically had access to the highest quality of higher education no longer have that access.

Mims: There are two things we get into: one is the defunding and the other is the reform effort. The most potentially damaging part of the reform effort is an undermining at public universities. This is uniquely a public university problem where tenure is being looked at as overhead that universities can’t afford, and because of budget reductions they have to get around that and be more innovative in terms of how they pay for teaching.

The other thing is research. There is a movement to either take the research funding that goes to public universities and migrate that over to the private sector and to separate research funding from teaching. You have all of these really remarkable universities like UT Austin that have married teaching and research organically, but there is this push to focus on research that will yield a return on investment quickly, rather than focusing on the kind of research that takes a long time and private companies don’t do that because they want a return on investment. It’s a big shift in the way these schools have operated and what has made them successful and draw people from everywhere in the world.

What are the ultimate consequences of this move to attack tenure and overhaul the structure of research at public universities?

Banowsky: You have a situation where the strong private universities are as strong as ever, while public universities are weak. The likely outcome, if this were to continue, would be a dismantling of the public higher education system. Instead of having a number of high-quality public research universities that are competitive within the world of higher education, you’ll have only a few. Lowering the quality of these big public research universities and separating the research mission from them and privatizing that will make them glorified trade schools.

The reformers are clear about wanting to educate more people at a lower cost, and in areas that would make them qualified to take on the jobs in the current economy. That gets to a different kind of mission than say the University of Wisconsin mission of being an idea factory, which has been threatened by the current governor. You’ll have great universities that will be private and then you’ll have large universities focused on training people for the workforce, as opposed to teaching them to think critically.

We’ve seen public pushback to the cuts proposed at Wisconsin and LSU, so how close are we to reaching a tipping point in this reform movement? 

Banowsky: We’re not there yet. People are generally not aware that this is happening across the country. Even at the universities where this is happening, people in academia are in their own bubble doing research and teaching. For a long time they never had to think about the political component of the places where they worked. That’s changed because of this aggressive change in governance in terms of the decisions being made about all of the things we’re talking about. Public universities are also hamstrung in talking about this.

It’s their job to sell a positive story about the university. And public university employees are circumspect about what they can say. It’s against the law in Texas for public universities to lobby the legislature, so people have been cautious about how aggressively they talk about what they’re seeing. We don’t have an agenda in the film, but we do hope people will come see it and find out what’s been happening. It’s been beneath the radar.

Who are the folks in academia who are vocal about how this reform movement is impacting the mission of their colleges?

Banowsky: People like Gene Nichols at the University of North Carolina and Bob Mann, who’s a professor at LSU, have written extensively about this. You would have to look at a guy like King Alexander, the president of LSU, who had the courage to come out and say to the legislature ‘if you keep these cuts coming, we’re going to put LSU into bankruptcy.’  There is an awareness issue. There is an inability for public higher education officials to muster any sort of defense to what is a very organized and concerted effort of defunding that has been going on for so long.

Mims: One guy we can add to that list is Bill Powers at UT. His story got a lot of coverage in the academic press during the time the board of regents tried to fire him at UT. He refused to go and that was happening while Rick Perry was still the governor. He was able to hang on until Perry’s term ended. It would have been easier for him to step aside, but he made a point staying as a way to protect the university.

You interviewed a lot of people who pushed for many of the reforms we’ve discussed. Did any of them have second thoughts about the impacts of those policies?

Banowsky: Absolutely not. These people are committed and convicted to their positions about what’s wrong with higher education and what needs to happen. There is this fundamental belief among the reformers that we met with that public higher education is broken, and the only way it’s going to be fixed is if reformers come in and radically change the direction that things are going.

Mims: These are arguably two legitimate ways to look at the government and funding for what the government does. The original idea was the state and the feds are going to pour all of this money into public higher education because it was an investment in the people of the state. The idea was you put that money in there and eventually these guys would come out, they’d be professionals and make the country much richer. There is a case to be made that, that is exactly what happened, and that’s so attractive that people will pay a premium to send their kids from China to go to school here.

The opposite view is that the government has no business using funds for public education. They know the historical context of it; they know how the Morrill Act came about during the Lincoln administration and what happened after World War II with money being poured into research universities. But their thinking is, well, this might have been okay then, but now we’re in a new era, we have all of this technology and we don’t think that state funds should play a role. These are all free-market ideas for reform. They believe that if you’re going to walk out of a place like University of Virginia and have a degree with a market value similar to what you’d get at Stanford, you should pay for that. You’re going to earn the income to pay that back so why should the state have a role. It’s just a different view from the original concept of public universities.

What, if any, role should free-market ideology have in higher education?

Banowsky: It already has a remarkable role in the system. We have private schools, public schools, church schools, trade schools. The market has already worked because we have every option that you’d want. It’s a little disingenuous to say that market reform needs to be applied heavily to public higher ed. If you talk to people in the administration of these universities, they are highly entrepreneurial because they’ve had to be. They’ve been peddling as fast as they can for decades to get ahead of the lack of funding.

Mims: It’s also fair to say that these market reformers are correct in saying these are inefficient institutions. That is the nature of them. It’s not defensible other than to say that by their nature these types of institutions are inefficient. The idea of bringing market efficiencies to them at the expense of all these universities have done to benefit society is the question the film asks.

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