Ivory Tower: Crumbling or Tumbling?: An Interview with Andrew Rossi (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West
Early in Ivory Tower, Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco reminds us that American higher education represents one of the greatest societal success stories in history: that social good reached a huge proportion of the citizenry, and both individual citizens and democracy in general reaped the benefits. Also early on, director/producer Andrew Rossi succinctly traces the history of higher education in America from the beginnings in the seventeenth century up to the present. Particular attention is paid to nineteenth-and twentieth-century milestones in the extension of the higher education franchise to the populace: the Morrill Act of 1862, the G. I. Bill of 1944, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and California educator Clark Kerr’s influential vision in the 1950s and 1960s of easy access to quality higher education for all Californians. Up to this point in American history, there had been an increasing acceptance amongst the citizenry of higher education as a right or a common good.
However, this push towards easy access to higher education was powerfully countered in the 1970s by California Governor Ronald Reagan, who was ideologically committed to viewing higher education as a private good. Reagan’s stance has proven stubbornly influential; and, as a result, in the last three decades, state funding for public higher education has plunged precipitously. In response, cash-starved state institutions have since 1978 dramatically increased tuition—as have their private counterparts. Tuition has increased 1,120% since 1978 according to Rossi’s rapidly accelerating animated chart that also shows how this increase far exceeds that of any other good or service in the U. S. economy including healthcare. Now a year at a typical second or third tier four-year public university routinely costs a student upwards of $30,000; and a year at many an elite private institution, such as New York University, runs double that amount.
Any American who reads, listens to, or views the news is aware that U. S. higher education is now in crisis mode. It is high time, then, that Rossi’s feature-length documentary reaches us; it is the first that I know of to examine this far-reaching crisis in nonprofit higher education. Ivory Tower is a well-crafted and purposefully provocative effort by a gadfly filmmaker—the man behind Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)—determined to provide mainstream America with an overview of this pressing societal problem that will profoundly impact the future directions of the U. S. economy and of the nation’s sociopolitical scene.
In the powerfully engrossing Page One, Rossi followed the fate of The New York Times as it recently—and dramatically—came to terms with the rapidly changing nature of journalism in an increasingly digital world. This feature documentary benefited from the structural unity offered by focusing primarily on one internationally acclaimed institution. In addition, Rossi cleverly cultivated the human-interest dimension by following a particularly charismatic media desk reporter on his rounds as he navigated the precarious work atmosphere. And, finally, Rossi’s narrative arc culminates in a dramatic crescendo in which the Times, because of its financial crisis, was finally forced to fire a significant number of its employees in order to survive as an institution.Page One, then, benefits from a structural and thematic unity that is missing in Ivory Tower.
In Ivory Tower, Rossi offers an overview of the crisis in higher education that is more diffuse and kaleidoscopic both thematically and structurally. Sequences of students actively involved in their learning experiences at the historically black Spelman women’s college and the two-year men’s work-study Deep Springs College are self-contained; but in general the filmmaker freely roams back and forth amongst specific scenarios at different institutions to accurately identify many of the major problems currently besetting higher education. These include the decline in quality in undergraduate education, which at many state schools is now largely imparted not by professors but by adjunct instructors or graduate students. The current corporatization of higher education has meant that students are now customers or consumers; and so universities seek prestige not by improving instruction but by engaging in endless “perks wars” in which any given institution seeks to attract more customers by faddishly building an always bigger, always better climbing wall, or natatorium, or a multimillion dollar student recreation center. As the quality of undergraduate education declines, at many big-time sports universities a raucously distracting “beer and circus” atmosphere openly prevails, providing for the entertainment of students rather than their education. The business model now ruling campuses has brought with it administrative bloat—at many state universities an endless parade of high-paid vice presidents and vice-fill-in-the-blanks accomplish little more than guarding their particular pieces of the pie. As for the salary of the president her/himself, at some institutions, such as the University of Chicago, that astronomical figure now ranges in the millions of dollars—more, even, than the annual salaries of certain Big Ten football coaches. And, finally: the current exorbitantly high cost of higher education means that many students graduate with staggering debt loads; in 2011, total student debt surpassed the $1 trillion dollar high-water mark.
Rossi’s kaleidoscopic approach is never difficult to follow in part because different experts appear and reappear to keep us grounded in the specific subject matter being examined. Abundant actuality footage—seldom lacking in the Smartphone/YouTube era—is pointedly used, as when drunken male students in a swimming pool pummel each other gladiator-style before crowds of tanked-up and cheering onlookers at Arizona State University. Such telling footage is frequently and pointedly intercut with ironic or nonironic material, as when the president of ASU appears in talking-head format to dutifully insist, unconvincingly, that his institution is certainly not a party school. Considerable screen time is devoted to the elusive promise of technology as an aid to instruction, as in a massively attended, screen-rich freshman-level computer science course popular at Harvard. Rossi even whisks us off campus, and we venture into a Silicon Valley “hacker house” and meet its intensely entrepreneurial young inhabitants who strive to “hack” their educations and create start-up companies without ever attending college. A wide range of mostly articulate “experts”—with or without the quotation marks—appears, from Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who argues against attending college and even offers fat fellowships to nonattendees, to the current president of Harvard, who ably defends her institution’s stress on the liberal arts.
Rossi adds an intriguing human-interest dimension by following on and off a disadvantaged male African-American scholarship student through his freshman year at Harvard, where he struggles with the introductory computer science course but ultimately finds help via the solidarity of classmates. And a dramatic element appears in the film’s second half when a severe financial crisis at Cooper Union rears its ugly head; the venerable New York City institution had famously been tuition free for over a century and a half. Thanks in part to footage shot by a felicitously present camera-wielding activist, we watch that crisis being met head-on by concerned students who protest the sudden imposition of tuition by taking over the president’s office for sixty-five consecutive days and publicly confronting him concerning the school’s shocking mismanagement of its endowment and even about his own annual salary, which totals approximately three-quarters of a million dollars, not counting his free use of a New York City townhouse.
As a film that uses a mainstream documentary approach to reach a mainstream audience, Ivory Tower registers great success at two levels. First, it shows the vast diversity and rich innovation characteristic of American higher education—from the working ranch/college Deep Springs, where students alternately bale hay and debate Hegel in small, intense classes—to Bunker Hill Community College, where nontraditional students participate in a “hybrid” course innovatively delivered partially by video lecture from MIT and partially by an in-the-classroom, actually human assistant. Rossi’s second success is the identification of many of the major problems now facing American higher education. He does not highlight them all, largely missing, for instance, the extraordinary financial impact of the money-losing sports programs at many hundreds of institutions, including large state universities famous/infamous for their big-time intercollegiate athletics. But Rossi certainly meets his goal of seeking to initiate a dialogue within the mainstream on these pressing issues and the future direction of higher education. It is now up to concerned viewers and the public to come up with possible solutions.
NB: Many higher-education professionals will find Ivory Tower less successful or even contentious because of its incomplete or unsatisfactory presentation of some issues or its many outright omissions. For instance, the decline of undergraduate education is duly noted; but its currently abysmal quality at many universities is scarcely revealed. And the implications are enormous. One may well ponder what—in an era of globalization—it forebodes for American foreign policy and the country’s status as a fading superpower if universities continue to routinely graduate career-oriented monolingual young people who possess little understanding of other countries and their societies. Many educators will balk at the statistics that Rossi trumpets, asking what, precisely, was the methodology used to calculate, for example, student debt or the current cost of an undergraduate education. One statistics-heavy sequence is particularly muddy, since voice-over commentators speak specifically of “tuition” increases while the charts being visualized show headings indicating the broader categories of “cost” or “price” increases.* Of course academics make a living by questioning and criticizing; and Rossi, by squeezing most of the essentials into the challengingly short ninety-minute format.
Cineaste interviewed Rossi in June at the fortieth edition of the Seattle International Film Festival. The exchange was freewheeling and spirited presumably because of the filmmaker’s obvious commitment to his work and because of the interviewers’ own committed background—many decades not so much in the Ivory Tower as in the humanities trenches of American public higher education. —Dennis West
Cineaste: In the pressbook for Ivory Tower, you are quoted as follows: “Institutional change has been at the core of almost every movie I’ve made.” Would you elaborate? And, secondly, a related question: Do you see your work building on the towering achievement of Frederick Wiseman?
Andrew Rossi: Yes, absolutely. I feel that all the movies I’ve worked on in one way or another have looked at cultural and social change as manifest in either one family’s life or in a business landscape, or, in the case of Ivory Tower, in a broader cultural institution coming to a crossroads of change. So the movie A Table in Heaven is about this Italian family in an intergenerational struggle between the patriarch, Sirio Maccioni, and the children, the three sons. It is almost sort of a domestic melodrama between the family members; but really it is a microcosm of a bigger change happening between a group of people who used to go to grand dining restaurants and a younger, moneyed class in New York City who have different tastes. This individual family is trying to reconcile themselves to that change. Page One similarly looks at a generational shift in a set of people in power trying to address the effects of digital technology; nonetheless, it is told through the story of a handful of reporters on the media desk of The New York Times who are absorbing that change and writing about it but also living through it.
In the case of Ivory Tower, we’re looking at a broader shift in the view of higher education as either a public good or a private good—the view that higher education is a good that society as a whole should support with state funding in order to keep tuition at an affordable rate, thus making it accessible to a broad number of people, versus the view of higher education as a private good, which since the Seventies and such conservative governors as Ronald Reagan, argues that the state should not be funding intellectual curiosity. This latter view has basically been responsible for reducing funding to public universities and creating a set of perverse incentives to have those universities constantly grow larger and adopt more perks and amenities in order to attract student-loan dollars, which in turn has led to tuition skyrocketing. My only regret in making Ivory Tower is that I was not able to straddle all those arguments and also find one particular person or institution to focus on as I was able to accomplish with Page One.
My approach really owes a great debt to Fred Wiseman, who is obviously a great hero of mine. The films I’ve made previously have aspired to a similar sort of vérité look at a set of characters in order to prove a bigger point about an institutional change. Ivory Tower is more of an essay film, so it doesn’t really participate in cinéma vérité as much. I know Wiseman would hate that term, but I like it.
Cineaste: You probably hadn’t seen Wiseman’s At Berkeley before you made Ivory Tower?
Rossi: I saw At Berkeley, yes. It screened at the New York Film Festival pretty much at the conclusion of our work. We were shooting and editing simultaneously, so we did a little more shooting after that but for the most part I was done when Wiseman’s film came out.
Cineaste: In your view of the world, what should college bring to a young person?
Rossi: I think that college is a bridge from adolescence to adulthood. It’s an opportunity for young people to discover what they care about, what they’re good at skillwise; and it’s a safe place for them to grow. But it has also increasingly taken on the obligation to almost serve as a job placement service, which it is not necessarily structured to do in the best way. That is not where the roots of the academy are exactly. Universities are sometimes unfairly judged on the basis of what kinds of jobs graduates are getting. However, as the cost has risen so dramatically and student loan debt has also gone up, there’s more of a certain moral obligation for the university to provide some sort of cushion to help the student wrangle that cost or pay for it. The historical idea of the university providing a provocation to think of a more meaningful life, as we see in the film when Andy Delbanco explains the origins of the lecture as sort of a sermon, has become confused as higher education has become so expensive. Now the university has to make sure that students are prepared for jobs even more than it ever did in the past.
Cineaste: Ivory Tower contends that a business-oriented model has taken over higher education, turning students into customers; but the film does not offer much insight into how to break this paradigm, which also seems to predominate in other areas of American society as well, such as healthcare. Of course, in the United States, both healthcare and higher education are now businesses, not rights of citizens. Would you comment?
Rossi: As Governor Jerry Brown says in the film, this problem in higher education is part of a marketization or the corporatization of so many things in American society. It is also part of the broader problem of inequality in this country which we now see people talking about and realizing more and more. At least for Governor Brown, the idea or the new insight that he had was to change the design of higher education. And so certainly in 2012 and 2013, there was a lot of enthusiasm about Massive Open Online Courses—MOOCs—as the technological solution that would lower cost and increase access. I think that technology definitely can be a part of a future in which costs can be lowered. Ultimately, however, I believe universities need to reassess what their mission is—whether it is to educate the students or whether it is to participate in this race for prestige, this “perks war” that increasingly makes them like businesses competing for customers.
Cineaste: To follow up on your last comment, your film documents how many public institutions of higher education faddishly and slavishly copy more prestigious institutions in their quest for luxury facilities and amenities for student customers: UC Berkeley builds a climbing wall, so then second and third tier public universities must also build one—or more than one! Such endless imitation in the pursuit of flashy amenities contributes to soaring costs and does nothing to strengthen academic programs. But Ivory Tower does not offer any specific suggestions about how to break this costly cycle.
Rossi: Well, it’s sort of like an addiction; and I do think you can analogize between alcohol or any kind of addiction that the individual can have and what universities and colleges are basically doing in terms of this blind race to build and get better. The first step is acknowledging the problem. Ivory Tower is a film that is trying to identify these issues and to put them out in the open—take that first step towards starting a conversation by presenting a mirror to universities, like Cooper Union in New York City, which are completely on the brink of collapse. As we were discussing before the interview, there have been many movies, for instance Waiting for Superman [Davis Guggenheim, 2010], that treat elementary school education and the problems of high schools. But I believe that, other than Fred Wiseman’s brilliant observational piece At Berkeley, Ivory Tower is really one of the first films to look at higher education. We are at the beginning of perhaps a bigger or wider look at this sector, and we hope that this will be an initial salvo into that new genre.
Cineaste: The scholarship of Murray Sperber—his book Beer and Circus, for instance—and other scholars suggests that public universities could save millions by eliminating big-time intercollegiate sports programs such as varsity football and using that money for actual academic programs. Why does Ivory Tower shy away from exploring this avenue to dramatically increase academic funding and make the role of public universities more educational and less sports and entertainment oriented?
Rossi: Well, we definitely include the stadiums and other athletic facilities as part of the “perks war” that we show is at the heart of so much waste—even though I’m sure many people believe that athletic programs are very important to the social life of the university. When we look at unique programs like Deep Springs in Death Valley, one of the things that makes them so special and effective is that there is so much focus on the classroom and the bare bones of keeping the ranch where the school is located operational. Ivory Tower definitely posits that the focus should be on the classroom, and that a lot of the surrounding facilities, including athletic facilities, are not key to such a focus.
Cineaste: Did you look at storied Berea College in Kentucky, which is another institution where students work in order to pay for their education?
Rossi: We considered it. There were many different schools that we considered. Antioch was another. Deep Springs was frequently recommended; we got access to shoot there, and so off we went.
Cineaste: A question concerning entitlement: According to a number of observers a culture of entitlement currently exists in the United States in which high-school students feel entitled to automatically pass courses without meeting learning goals and then proceed to public universities with that same cavalier attitude. Without such “entitled mindsets” would graduation rates at public universities not improve and costs decline?
Rossi: In my research I did find that there are perverse incentives taking place in the classroom that conspire to have, in many cases, students expectingvery easy course loads and professors sort of chasing students’ expectations and trying to create a less demanding environment. I think that that’s a problem Richard Arum, professor at New York University and author of Academically Adrift, has really some pretty striking data on. In the film, he explains how classrooms in certain schools become a theater in which favors are being traded between the student and the professor.
Cineaste: Would you clarify how you see this favor system—the faculty/student nonaggression pact in Sperber’s terms—working?
Rossi: Adapting from what Richard Arum said, it’s a calculus along the lines of the professor saying, “I will not assign too much reading or demand too much writing of long term papers, so that I myself have enough time to do my research/publication and other things that accrue to my reputation and increase the potential of getting tenure or staying in the good graces of the administration.” In exchange, the student will give the professor high marks on surveys or evaluations of teaching and not, in the millennial parlance, “bomb” the professor online in a chat room or something like that.
Cineaste: Why does Ivory Tower not specifically examine rampant grade inflation—an urgent problem that we have observed firsthand on campuses for decades? Is not grade inflation a key part of the “entitlement problem?”
Rossi: Right. I think that is implicit in a lot of what Richard Arum says in terms of the favors being perpetrated in the classroom, so we view it as part of that section of the film.
Cineaste: So many people seemed surprised about students’ lack of motivation with the MOOCs; but this very same problem already existed with the correspondence, video, and TV courses of the 1970s–1990s. With no actual professor in front of them, many students weren’t that motivated. Doesn’t the actual presence of an interesting, knowledgeable, encouraging professor in a give-and-take interactive classroom situation offer the best chance for students to learn in most disciplines?
Rossi: Absolutely! I agree one hundred percent. But this is the story that repeats in so many areas of disruption and great change, whether it be higher education or journalism or other fields. People tend to forget the lessons of previous moments in which the orthodoxy of the profession or the sector was challenged. There are certain inherent truths or pillars of insight that have been gleaned over years of work that get tossed out—the baby with the bathwater—in those moments. But then frequently there is an adjustment period in which some of those pillars get reinforced.
With the initial MOOC pilot at San Jose State University there was this rush to provide the classes online and see what they could do. But this initial trial resoundingly reinforced the role of in-class instruction—in an exclusively online class, without any form of in-class instruction, the pass rates were abysmal, particularly for students who had remedial needs. When we look at Bunker Hill Community College, we see that a hybrid classroom is actually more successful. You can have video lectures that students watch at home; but when they come into the classroom to do their homework, they have an instructor present who is able to give them support and to clarify things that they find confusing.
Cineaste: As far as remedial courses go, it could certainly be argued that public universities could save considerable public money by not offering such courses in either MOOC or traditional formats, since the subject matter is more inherently appropriate at the high-school level, where students do not pay fees or tuition.
Rossi: Undoubtedly deficiencies in high school preparedness are one of the major problems contributing to failures in academic performance at the college level. So that’s a very good point.
Cineaste: Could these Massive Online Instruction courses that were piloted in California perhaps not be seen as another sexy enticement to students to attend institutions that offer them? Many of today’s students seem really attracted by technological gizmos and by the notion of “being online”—the whole technology mania.
Rossi: Even at Bunker Hill Community College, the instructor there told us that some of the students taking the computer science class that was partially offered by a MIT MOOC were attracted to take the class because it was coming from MIT. Coming from a leader in computer science made it sound special.
Cineaste: The prestige factor again.
Cineaste: What price will society pay if higher education cannot evolve a sustainable economic model?
Rossi: Ivory Tower shows that higher education is key to a democracy, key to a thriving economy, and key to individuals finding more meaning in life. So if we cannot find a sustainable model, and more and more students are either shut out of going to college or else attending college and then having these tremendous debt burdens that constrict so many choices in their lives, then I think that American society is headed toward a very deep and dark problem.
Cineaste: Why haven’t more conservative leaders, such as Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, been more susceptible to that argument about public higher education helping a given state’s economy by producing college graduates who know more, can do more, and can earn more in the long run—give more to society and help bring up the entire economy of a state?
Rossi: Probably because Milton Friedman and the others in the Reagan cabinet and inner circle viewed the economic engine and what was being added to the economy as things that were privately beneficial, even though they also had macro-economic consequences. There was the sense that higher education was contributing to one person’s better prospects for employment.
Cineaste: But at the macro-economic level, wouldn’t it be quantitatively verifiable—how having more college graduates in a given state helps that state’s entire economy?
Rossi: Absolutely. I think that that’s absolutely right; but it also ties into a philosophy about government and what role government should play, smaller or bigger. So this argument is susceptible to political manipulation in terms of which side you want to argue for or against.
Cineaste: For decades higher education was a key to social mobility in the United States. Is that no longer the case?
Rossi: That’s a complicated question. Anthony Carnevale, who appears in the film, has argued that college can be seen in one way to actually “launder” class prejudice, or launder class difference. To the extent that because college is such a key towards a certain kind of employment, those who are disadvantaged and don’t have the same access to college—frequently people of color, blacks and Latinos, for instance—are not being groomed to enter college. And so they ultimately get excluded from this key engine of social mobility. So the existence of this institution of college, which is required for so many jobs, can actually have this pernicious effect.
On the flip side, you have libertarians, like Peter Thiel in the film, who argue that college is actually victimizing students who are attending and then emerging with so much crushing debt. They believe that college is no longer an engine of social mobility because the people who do attend are then saddled with debilitating loans. I think somewhere in between there is a vision of college that is still very empowering for people who are able to select a school that is not too expensive and that provides them with a skill set to get a job that they will find fulfilling. This is probably true because such students are drawn to a college not to party or not because it has a rah-rah football team and a better reputation on ESPN or in their peer networks, but is rather an institution that stands out in networks that are important to them for employment or for learning, whatever it is they care about.
Cineaste: Ivory Tower observes the soaring costs of paying college and university administrators on a business model but does not acknowledge the shrinking costs in recent decades of paying instructors in selected fields where salaries for some years now—in terms of actual purchasing power—have been declining, such as the humanities.
Rossi: That is a very salient point. There are so many different challenges in this sector that we were not able to address. For example, we wish we had had more opportunity to address the treatment of adjunct instructors and their lack of resources and benefits. There are matters such as these that we hope to include in the social action campaign for the film.
Cineaste: What specific plans do you have to mobilize the citizenry around this issue?
Rossi: Ivory Tower is being released theatrically throughout the country during the summer. Participant Media has already mounted a Website (www.takepart.com/ivorytower), and in the fall there will be a social action tour on campuses nationwide, hopefully enlisting both students and faculty to watch the film and then participate in either a panel or a Q&A session or a town hall.
Cineaste: Do you consider yourself an activist filmmaker?
Rossi: I don’t consider myself an activist filmmaker; however, I think this film does convey a sense of outrage. In fact, you can hear me in certain interviews asking questions—which I don’t usually do in the course of a film. Ivory Tower lays bare some key structural problems in higher education. Of course, as we’ve discussed, it doesn’t cover everything; but it is a work that hopefully will inspire advocacy even if it is not itself an activist work.
*For a useful discussion of the inadequacies of Rossi’s statistics, consult William Deresiewicz’s “The Miseducation of America,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2014 (http://m.chronicle.com/article/The-Miseducation-of-America/147227)
Ivory Tower is distributed in the United States by Samuel Goldwyn Films, http://samuelgoldwynfilms.com/
Dennis West is a contributing editor at Cineaste. Joan M. West is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine