Film Review: ‘Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities’

A polished and provocative documentary about debates over funding -- or defunding -- state colleges and universities.

'Starving the Beast' Review

Provocative in its arguments and persuasive in its advocacy, “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities” offers a crash course in the ongoing debate over the funding — or, more precisely, the defunding — of higher education in the United States. Filmmaker Steve Mims allows for the free airing of opposing viewpoints, so that those who proselytize for the commodification of education — that is, those who want to turn colleges and universities into what one interviewee describes as “consumer-oriented organizations” — get almost as much screen time as the folks who view this as not merely a dubious proposition but a dangerous concept. Ultimately, however, there is no doubt about which side Mims is on, and who the filmmaker blames for undercutting the traditional concept of state-funded colleges and universities that exist to provide more than just trade-school training.

“Starving the Beast” traces the current imbroglio back to “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s popular 1997 book, which promoted “disruptive innovation” as a way for companies to maintain competitive edges. Many of Christensen’s concepts were embraced and reconstituted by Jeff Sandefer, a former U. of Texas business professor (and independently wealthy businessman) who’s described by former UT colleagues as a textbook example of a disgruntled former employee. Sandefer formulated “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a series of radical proposals — such as ranking and paying professors based on the number of students taught, not the amount of research completed — that Gov. Rick Perry of Texas sought to implement at UT and Texas A&M.

During interview segments that appear periodically throughout “Starving the Beast,” Sandefer makes no apologies for insisting that taxpayers shouldn’t be compelled to fund “elitist” courses and programs that won’t help students land high-paying jobs. Indeed, at one point he bluntly states, “I don’t think that professors of humanities anywhere have proven without a doubt that their work is so priceless that it should [continue].” He allows that students should be exposed to Shakespeare. But what about Faulkner? “Maybe,” Sandefer replies. “I’m not a big Faulkner fan, but we can have that argument.”

Through the shrewd interweaving of talking-head testimonies, illustrative charts, and archival TV news footage, Mims demonstrates how people like Sandefer and anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist have profoundly influenced governors like Perry, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in their campaigns to balance state budgets by slashing the budgets of state-funded universities. (With smaller budgets, the reasoning goes, universities will be more willing to reduce or eliminate such things as black studies programs, poverty research centers, and tenure for professors.) And speaking of campaigns, “Starving the Beast” strongly suggests that each of those three governors hoped their draconian budget-cutting would make them more attractive to voters during their Presidential bids.

Whether it’s documenting Perry’s efforts to impose organizational changes over the objections of university officials, or detailing how rich businessmen like David and Charles Koch are attempting to influence college curricula, “Starving the Beast” repeatedly sounds cautionary notes that escalate to the level of fretful alarms. And yet, for all that, the movie never seems shrill or didactic. In fact, some viewers — especially those who aren’t currently funding higher education for their children or themselves — may find stretches of the film to be a tad too dry and academic.

But liberal gadfly James Carville — an aggressively proud LSU graduate — appears just frequently enough to quicken the documentary’s pulse with equal measures of hectoring comic relief and blunt-spoken criticisms. Appropriately enough, it’s up to Carville to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to explaining how severe state budget cuts pushed LSU perilously close to “academic bankruptcy.” The nightmare scenario had a relatively happy ending only when fans of the university’s storied football team pressured Gov. Jindal to restore much of the funding, if only to guarantee that the LSU Tigers would survive to fight another day.

Film Review: ‘Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities’

Reviewed online, Houston, Aug. 29, 2016. (At SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>95 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Violet Crown Films release of a Railyard Films production. Producer: Bill Banowksy.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Steve Mims. Camera (color). Editor: Mims.
  • With: James Carville, George Cohen, Gene Nichol, Peter Flawn, Larry Faulkner, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Hunter Rawlings, Noel Radomski. Narrator, Brian Ramos.