Film Addresses Funding Cuts to Public Institutions

Graph courtesy of Steve Mims

Tuition at public colleges and universities has increased dramatically since the 1980s. This is largely due to massive cuts in higher education budgets in many states across the country. In Louisiana alone, the budget has been slashed by 80 percent in just the last eight years. Steve Mims’s documentary “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities” takes a deeper look at institutions affected by both budget cuts and other aspects of government and politics.

“As state governments have disinvested from institutions of higher education, public universities have had to scramble for private money … they’ve started a fervent political campaign under this mistaken guise that students are consumers, rather than students and future citizens,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia featured in the film.

The film covered incidents that occurred at the University of Virginia, as well as Texas A&M, the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State, Louisiana State and the University of North Carolina, but falling funds and increasing tuition is not exclusive to these schools. Ramapo too suffers from the same issues.

“I thought it was very much applicable to Ramapo because [of] our students, their tuition has increased exponentially as the mismanagement of the funds has caused, you know, costs to go up in terms of the administrators. The state funding has gone down in New Jersey and the first people they try to cut are the faculty and staff,” said Maria Vail, theater professor, who added that she only paid $600 a semester when she went to UC Berkeley.

“I think we all agree now that college costs too much and delivers too little and has to change,” said Jeff Sandefer, a businessman featured in the documentary because of his list of seven solutions he thought would solve problems in higher education.

This list, as well as former Governor of Texas Rick Perry, were the start of the attempted reform of public institutions. However, several of Sandefer’s suggestions led to schools being ran just like a business, with the value of professors being calculated numerically by comparing their salary to the amount of student credit hours they produce rather than by the content they were teaching.

Many university presidents opposed this change, including University of Texas president Bill Powers and Texas A&M Chancellor Mike McKinney who were both pushed out of office because of their opposing views.

Across the country, the heads of other universities were called into question because their views or ideas did not line up with those of lawmakers or board members. Protests broke out across the University of Virginia campus after board members forced Vaidhyanathan to resign because she was not following their agenda. During a press conference to announce the forced resignation of University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross, the Board of Governors was unable to provide any actual reason for it, simply saying they thought it was time for a new president.

Incidents like these and many others have left people to believe that politics and government officials are affecting things behind the scene.

“Many also question the taxpayer worthiness of some course content offered in public higher education, arguing, ultimately, for a re-evaluation of the very ideas suitable for discussion in taxpayer underwritten schools,” said Mims, explaining why people support the budget cuts.

The film also explains how many government officials often initially threaten an inflated budget cut so that when the actual slightly smaller number comes down on the college, the institution is almost forced to be grateful. However, these cuts often leave them with no choice but to raise tuition and fees.

“I think debt prevents some students from doing what they actually want to do, whether it's changing their major and adding on a semester or going on to grad school,” said sophomore Samantha Mundy.

“Unfortunately, I think that the Board of Trustees is a little too separated from the life around here and we want to invite them to come closer and really take a look at what kind of hours our students have to work and the way they leave here with a mortgage,” said Vail. “It’s unfair beyond Ramapo. It’s an unfair thing to do to an entire generation.”