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"Starving the Beast" movie: Money, Politics and Higher Ed

StarvingTheBeastI saw "Starving the Beast" at the Angelika the other day, described as "an exploration into the philosophy and the players behind the recent push to cut state support for higher education". It is a very good movie, although the pace is a little slow at first. IMDB summarizes the plot as follows: "The film documents a philosophical shift that seeks to reframe public higher education as a "value proposition" to be borne by the beneficiary of a college degree rather than as a "public good" for society." I particularly liked how it tied events at universities as different as Texas A&M, UT Austin, U.Wisconsin-Madison and UNC-Chapel Hill into one broad narrative where right-leaning operators have engineered the decrease of state tuition and ouster or attempted ouster of top leaders who did not buy into Clayton Christensen's convenient storyline of disruptive innovation as an imperative for the 21st century.

In the movie, Christensen comes across as a bit of a quack. I don't like the fact that he's co-authored so many books on disruptive innovation, changing the application area but essentially repeating the same message and sometimes the same stories, and I particularly dislike him for the way he shrouded himself with glory in an article he wrote for HBR some time ago, where he provided as an example of standing up for what you believe in his choice of not playing college basketball in a critical game because it was on a Sunday and he believed he should not play on a Sunday. He was a starter and the team lost the game. This example struck me as narrow-minded and short-sighted. But Christensen has long been hailed as a great strategic guru and I did love The Innovator's Solution (much better in my opinion than The Innovator's Dilemma, and the only book of Christensen's I have ever liked - then I bought a third one after Dilemma and Solution and quickly realized he was going to repeat himself from then on). The one thing that has stuck with me from Christensen's work is that he exhorts his readers to ask the question: when customers purchase a product, what is the job they need the product to do? For instance, students purchase textbooks to pass a course. They rarely need the textbooks to provide them with every little detail of a topic in an online e-companion. He argues that is why enhanced versions of textbooks haven't caught on. It seems simple when phrased like that, but in my view it also explains why M.O.O.C.s are overhyped. Most students don't take a M.O.O.C. to learn the knowledge. They take a M.O.O.C. because they want to feel they could belong in a top university (whichever offers the M.O.O.C. they are taking). But to truly belong they need the support of a community, the feedback of an instructor. Study groups were a step in the right direction but people haven't really proved they belonged to the university (if they ever will be) until they show mastery of that material and that would only happen upon completion of the course, even if M.O.O.C.s allowed thoughtful and in-depth assessment of students, which they most definitely don't. So the movie is a bit harsh on Christensen, I felt, but perhaps he should have expected something less than flattering would come out of his relentless attempts of promoting disruptive innovation.

On the other hand, he can't control the way people respond to his topic. Disruptive innovation has pleased so many people because it gives them the impression they can be David against Goliath, upend the established order, effect profound change through their wits and skills alone. This is also why so many books about plain vanilla innovation are published these days. People (at least the people who buy those books) are told they have something unique to bring to the world and it can profoundly transform the world around them. Everyone wants to see themselves as the underdogs, including the free-market operators who are depicted in the movie as being on a crusade against taxpayers' money going to public universities. 

The movie presents this as purely an attitude toward taxes, and maybe it's true, but I wish it also had considered the possibility that the people behind the drop in state funding for higher ed also are attempting to decrease the competition for their own. If you believe Angela Duckworth's theory that grit is a key predictor for success, then it is maybe not far-fetched to also believe that students from modest means who have to work multiple jobs to pay their bills and succeed in spite of the odds show more grit and resilience when they enter college than students from well-off families who have not had to struggle as much. (Duckworth does suggest grit can be learned, with enough effort, and the best students from well-off families can also place themselves in challenging environments, juggling extracurricular activities, varsity sports, double majors, and more.) Free-market operators who make it more difficult for the gritty, resilient students to afford public universities also remove students who would have competed against their children and their children's friends. If you reduce a candidate pool, the quality of the pool will be no better. 

Some of the arguments were caricatural, for instance when a free-market proponent says he doesn't want taxpayer money to go toward funding the research of a (imaginary) scholar in some narrow topic in 14th century medieval literature. It was so obviously a ploy to get viewers and taxpayers riled up you have to wonder why some people fall for it. But top state universities also serve as a powerful marketing tool for states that try to attract business from other states. (Private universities also do, but the states can't take as much credit for them.) Top researchers at state universities struggling with a decrease in funding get poached away by other universities, possibly out-of-state, and their expertise and possible patents and start-ups go away with them. State universities should be treated as crown jewels in a state's economic development strategy. That starts with making sure they have enough money to operate.

At times I wondered why those university presidents who have born the brunt of the machinations described in the movie haven't been better at making their case to the state legislators. Why weren't they prepared? Some of the facts described in the movie were almost 10 years old. Are they only becoming wiser now? Where is their network of allies in the legislature? Why haven't they been able to call onto the electorate - a large proportion of which presumably sends their children to public universities - to defeat politicians who don't want to fund those universities properly? The more public colleges rely on out-of-state students, the less local politicians are susceptible of being booted out of office by angry voting parents. Frankly the most puzzling part for me is that there hasn't been more of a backlash. 

There is a segment in the movie on the Wisconsin governor, proudly announcing he's gotten rid of tenure at UW-Madison so that (I paraphrase) the university can be more nimble in its hiring practices depending on the needs of the workforce. But universities always have had lecturers and adjuncts drawn from the workforce (I'm talking in particular of engineering, where part-time faculty typically has full-time work in industry) to adapt to changing circumstances. Tenure provides an incentive for people in the latter part of their career to be effective "citizens" of their university by taking on administrative or committee work they would not have any reason to take on if they risked losing their job - without tenure they would be better off keeping their own research skills up to date instead of investing their time in the well-being and sound operations of the university. 

I do think it is important to ask whether colleges, public and otherwise, do the job that students or their parents or the taxpayers pay for. That's not something you can know from teaching evaluations or even exit interviews at graduation. Maybe you can tell if you ask young graduates five years after graduation, but some will value the teaching and some will value the extracurricular activities and some will value the alumni network. After five years, I do feel successful members of the workforce will have continued to update their skills - finding mentors, going back to school for another degree - so while they might donate some of their money to their alma mater, many more people and institutions will be involved in their success than said alma mater. 

The thing that bothers me also with the talk about preparing students for jobs after graduation is the potential for certain companies to exploit those young graduates. If colleges only prepare them for specific jobs, and the companies don't help them grow, how are those students going to develop the leverage that would enable them to look for better opportunities elsewhere if they are not well treated in those jobs? Focusing on what's good for companies at the expense of the individuals is a problem. Also, if free-market operators believe that the market should take care of tuition funding, then the market should also take care of any imbalance between supply and demand. If companies really do need a certain type of graduates, then you'd think they'd increase the starting salary to fetch those students from the clutches of those competitors. News travel fast on college campuses. Students would have enough time in their last few semesters of college to better prepare themselves for the real world if they see the offers some of their classmates got. (On a related topic, I wonder why so many politicians say there's a dire need for STEM graduates but don't have their own children major in STEM fields.) 

Also, I think people get angry if they feel left out by the system - if they're admitted to college but have to drop out because they don't have the money, when we hear the message everywhere around us that a college degree is a must-have for success in life. That means, in the most extreme case, drivers who drive like maniacs because they don't care if they hit another car (especially if it's a nice one, since they don't feel they could ever own that), bystanders who look the other way if someone is getting mugged (that'll make two of them without money), people who feel they should only look out for themselves and the rest of the world had better take care for itself since they were left out in the cold. People who don't want to pay for public universities may live in upscale communities but they still have to be side by side with the people they're trying to prevent from getting a college degree when they drive or run errands. This is not a recipe for a productive society. 

The movie has been reviewed all over the media. The Atlantic asks: "Are American colleges supposed to prepare future citizens for civically engaged adulthood? Or is their job to provide student consumers a market-driven good so they’re capable of becoming productive participants in the economy?" The New York Times writes: "This documentary by Steve Mims describes an ideological war over public higher education that is being conducted state by state. Trying to reframe college as a consumer product, free-market advocates proudly brandish a “disrupt and reform” credo that would apply business-world values and metrics to state universities. If it’s a business — not a public responsibility — then it dovetails nicely with the small-government movement to "starve the beast"." Inside Higher Ed also has a detailed summary of the movie and notes that the professors at the universities presented in the movie were aware of the tumult in their own state but not of the struggle in others. It will be interesting to see if the movie can launch a conversation about the topic. I'm still not sure why college presidents at public universities haven't been able to make a stronger case for continued state funding, especially in the top universities presented in the movie. Their reputation speaks for itself. Why are legislators distancing themselves from such success stories?

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