Higher education battles at UNC, other schools featured in new documentary

The University of North Carolina system is featured in a new documentary about governance and funding crises in U.S. public higher education.

The film, “Starving the Beast,” opened in limited release in U.S. cities this month, and will be shown in Raleigh in late September. It puts the focus on the 35-year national trend of state governments defunding public higher education and the political battles that have played out in public universities in Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia.

“Starving the Beast,” produced by Bill Banowsky and directed by Steve Mims, suggests that the result is out-of-control tuition and a philosophical shift in which public higher education is no longer viewed as a public good but as a value proposition for its consumers. The documentary places the blame on market-oriented reform movements and conservative lawmakers’ anti-tax pledges that have reduced spending at public campuses, while elite private universities have flourished.

“Generally what people know about this story, or about the issue, is that tuition has become painfully expensive and debt has become a huge problem,” said Mims, a Texas writer and director who has taught at the University of Texas. “If you, at a glacial rate, reduce funding over 35 years, eventually there’s a price to pay for that in such a way that people notice. I think that that’s what’s happened now. This has become a national issue because it’s dawned on people that this is an outrageous situation.”

In a segment on UNC, the film highlights the 2015 ouster of former UNC President Tom Ross by the UNC Board of Governors, and includes footage of an uncomfortable news conference where former board chair John Fennebresque struggled to explain the reason why. The action was viewed as a politically motivated move by a board dominated by Republican appointees.

The film also reviews the controversial vote by the board last year to abolish three university research centers linked to poverty, the environment and voter engagement. Interviewed in the film are representatives from the Raleigh-based John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank, and Gene Nichol, the UNC-Chapel Hill law professor and well-known liberal who headed the poverty center.

“Professors cannot criticize the government,” Nichol said in the film, adding that free speech is at stake.

“You work for us,” Nichol said, voicing the point of view of lawmakers. “You work for the University of North Carolina. We call the shots. There’s a new sheriff in town, so shut your mouth.”

Nichol, who has written stinging critiques of Republican elected leaders for The News & Observer’s opinion pages, said if he weren’t a professor with tenure, he would have been fired by now.

Jay Schalin, director of policy analysis at the Pope Foundation, makes the point in the film that some professors are improperly using the classroom to make political stances, to be “change agents” to shift the views of young people. “This is not what education is for,” he said in the film.

He also called Ross a “status quo” leader and said the Pope Center wanted to see a reformer in the UNC presidency.

The film explores a governance crisis at the University of Texas when former president William Powers faced pressures from some members of the Board of Regents to implement changes known as “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” authored by Texas entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer. Powers resisted and eventually became the target of several investigations by a powerful regent.

“Starving the Beast” also reviews the ouster and then reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and the action by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to do away with tenure. Louisiana State University’s near disastrous budget crisis is part of the film, too.

Despite recent political turmoil in North Carolina, the state’s higher education system is better funded than universities in many other states. And while tuition at UNC schools is comparatively low, it has risen precipitously in recent years. State appropriations in North Carolina were up 15 percent from 2005 to 2015, while tuition and fee revenue jumped 85 percent during the same time period.

Ross’ successor, Margaret Spellings, said she hadn’t seen the new film but intends to.

“One of the reasons that I came here is that North Carolina is a state with such a long history of high, high levels of support for public higher education, and that remains true,” she said. “Have states lost ground from high water marks? Yes, but still in terms of our peers, it’s a great story to tell.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Coming to Raleigh

‘Starving the Beast’ will be shown Sept. 30 at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh