Film Review: ‘Ivory Tower’

Andrew Rossi tackles the college debt crisis head-on in this stimulating and wide-ranging documentary.

Ivory Tower Sundance

After “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” filmmaker Andrew Rossi continues his roving inquiry into the crises and changes that have rocked America’s most respected institutions in “Ivory Tower.” Moving from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League to the rising movement of “hackademic” startups in Silicon Valley, this smartly packaged documentary offers a wide-ranging analysis of skyrocketing tuition prices (private and public), rapidly evolving social attitudes toward the value of a college degree, and the inevitable changes wrought by technological growth and economic disaster. Although stronger on breadth than focus, it’s an appropriately stimulating take on a far-from-sustainable system, likely to stir debate among education-minded professionals in theatrical and cable play, though it will be most useful — and marketable — to high schoolers weighing the cost of their future.

“Ivory Tower” is at least the second documentary in two years, following Frederick Wiseman’s artful and immersive “At Berkeley,” to comment on the increasingly prohibitive costs of higher education and the implications for America’s youth. Speaking with a broad array of authors, academics and administrators, and trotting out statistics when necessary, Rossi paints a dispiriting overall picture of a system that saddles students with crippling debt (totaling more than $1 trillion nationwide), which they are ill equipped to pay off in an increasingly pinched job market — a problem that, for many, calls into question the practical value of attending college to begin with.

One of the documentary’s key points is that most colleges are no longer selling an education but an experience, happily spending millions of dollars on plush housing complexes and state-of-the-art recreational facilities in a bid to entice as many applicants as possible. It’s the students who pay for these campus expansions, and not just financially: Too many schools, in the film’s somewhat over-generalized estimation, have allowed academic rigor to fall by the wayside, a problem that can be attributed in part to an excess of administrators and a dearth of dedicated teaching faculty. One particularly alarming statistic — that 68% of students at public universities fail to graduate in four years — is introduced by way of a visit to Arizona State U., whose party-school rep is reinforced here by footage of a massive swimming-pool bacchanal that resembles an outtake from “Spring Breakers.”

By contrast, at a time when the prestige of the Ivy League remains largely unassailable, Harvard is held up as the gold standard in terms of providing a world-class education and generous, need-based financial aid; one such beneficiary is freshman David Boone, a formerly homeless Cleveland teenager who’s amazed to have a bed and a dorm room to call his own. And then there’s Mark Zuckerberg, the most famous Harvard dropout this side of Bill Gates, whose astonishing success underlines both the questionable relevance of a college degree and the increasing emphasis on technology as a foundation of modern education. Indeed, among Harvard’s most popular classes is CS50: Introduction to Computer Science (footage from which is edited and scored to produce a moody “Social Network” vibe), one of many courses that are now offered free online to anyone who wants to enroll — part of an ongoing and so far inconclusive experiment in making education both available and affordable.

Not unlike “Page One,” “Ivory Tower” is structured in somewhat scattershot fashion, and hard-pressed to address the finer complexities of an enormous subject in a tidy hour-and-a-half framework. Yet the individual building blocks are never less than fascinating: Rather than advancing a single argument, the film tracks a wide range of intelligent perspectives, the most engaging of which shed light on lesser-known higher-education alternatives.

Among the more impressive examples is Deep Springs College, an intensive, highly selective two-year school located on a cattle ranch in Death Valley; here, 26 or so young men form a close, self-governing community, debating Hegel and mending fences as they prepare themselves, physically and intellectually, for lives of service. The film rightly adopts a more skeptical (but still open-minded) attitude toward the likes of billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who offers students $100,000 to skip college altogether and instead pour their ideas and resources into their own startups; closely linked to Thiel’s fellowship is the San Francisco-based UnCollege movement, which similarly encourages youngsters to “hack their education.”

Providing the documentary with its most dramatic source of conflict, as well as its most substantive reportage, are the 2013 student protests that occurred at Cooper Union, the privately endowed New York school of architecture, fine arts and engineering that, for more than 150 years, provided every one of its students with a full-tuition scholarship. It’s a venerable tradition that ended under the leadership of president Jamshed Bharucha, who in 2011 announced that, due to increasingly hard economic times, the school would begin charging students for tuition. The closest thing the documentary has to a real villain, Bharucha looks awfully dodgy when Rossi confronts him about the school’s badly mismanaged recent hedge-fund investments, as well as the not-insignificant matter of Bharucha’s own handsome compensation.

While “Ivory Tower” is not primarily student-focused, it contains perhaps no more stirring or eloquent moment than the one in which Bob Estrin, one of the many students who occupied Bharucha’s office in 2013, stares down the president and declares that Cooper Union is on the verge of an “historic moment” — an opportunity for the school to reaffirm, rather than abandon, its commitment to the highest ideal of a free education. Realistic or not, it’s one of the few moments here that leave us feeling not just concerned for the state of America’s future leaders, but hopeful and even inspired.

Film Review: ‘Ivory Tower’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2014. Running time: <strong>97 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Samuel Goldwyn Films release of a CNN Films production. Produced by Andrew Rossi, Josh Braun. Executive producers, Vinnie Malhotra, Amy Entelis. Co-producer, Kate Novack.
  • Crew: Directed by Andrew Rossi. Camera (color, HD), Rossi; Bryan Sarkinen, Andrew Coffman; editors, Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Coffman; music, Ian Hultquist; music supervisor, Bryan Bonwell; supervising sound editor, Abigail Savage; associate producer, Coffman.
  • With: David Boone, Clayton Christensen, Andrew Delbanco, Anya Kamenetz, Victoria Sobel, Jamshed Bharucha, Peter Thiel.