Commodity U: Starving the Beast looks at the dismantling of public education

UVA prof Siva Vaidhyanathan calls Starving the Beast a “blow against the ideologues against higher education.”
Courtesy Starving the Beast UVA prof Siva Vaidhyanathan calls Starving the Beast a “blow against the ideologues against higher education.” Courtesy Starving the Beast

Ever wonder why Virginia’s vaunted flagship university gets such paltry state funding? To the filmmakers of Starving the Beast, that’s an ideological decision.

The documentary, produced by Violet Crown owner Bill Banowsky, connects the dots between a movement to cut funding in public universities that started around Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

The Texas-based filmmakers—University of Texas adjunct professor Steve Mims wrote and directed the film—say it started in the Lone Star State, but when they looked around, they saw the same defunding of public education all over the country.

“All these great research universities are under attack,” says Banowsky, listing UT, Texas A&M, Louisiana State University, University of North Carolina, University of Wisconsin and UVA, all of which are featured in the film.

“The common threads all pointed back to conservative think tanks trying to change higher public education,” says Banowsky, whose father was president of two universities. That has been going on for 35 years, starting with the “trickle down” philosophy of Reagan, he says. What was once an average of 60 percent of funding that a state put into its public universities has dropped to an average of 12 percent, he says.

UVA gets 5.5 percent from the state for its $1.6 billion academic budget, and if the medical center is added in, state support makes up 4.8 percent of the operating budget.

What did trickle down was the defunding of public education by conservative legislatures and governors who considered elite state research universities “liberal bastions,” says Banowsky. “People involved in higher education are aware of this,” he says, “but most people are not.”

The ideological battle led to higher education being treated as a commodity and students as consumers, according to Starving. And learning for learning’s sake and the betterment of the citizenry and society? Unless poetry can demonstrate a return on investment, forget about it.

Banowsky quotes James Carville in the film, who says, “What is happening is immoral. We are stealing the future of the next generation.”

Those slicing public schools’ budgets want to restrict what universities teach and research, says UVA media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, who appears in the documentary. They’re focusing on short-term rewards, he says, “teaching skill-training rather than fuller education.”

And when public research universities are forced to seek out private donations, that can lead to “pandering,” says Vaidhyanathan. “Most alumni want to defer to the judgment of faculty, but some of the higher-end donors result in the fact [that] we have a Center for Contemplative Sciences because of the whims of a billionaire rather than other research priorities.”

He’s referring to Paul Tudor Jones, who was a Helen Dragas ally in the failed ouster of Teresa Sullivan in 2012, an “effort to get rid of a president who is a distinguished academic and replace her with someone from the business world,” says Vaidhyanathan. “We’re seeing the anti-academic forces.”

The scene at UVA isn’t quite as dire as it is in other states. “Since the debacle of 2012, UVA has been able to make its case,” he says. “It has wide public support. Dragas’ biggest blunder was not realizing the broad public support from alumni, faculty and students. The legislature since that time has been quite the supporter.”

Starving the Beast opens September 30 at Violet Crown.

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