BOR Goes to the Movies: ‘Starving the Beast’

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Starving the Beast, the new feature-length documentary that premiered last March at SXSW about the state-level attack on public universities currently underway in the United States, opens in Austin this weekend. Directed by veteran documentarian Steve Mims (Incendiary),  Starving the Beast is a must-see for all Texas progressives.  Frankly, it may be the best issue-focused political documentary I’ve ever seen. (And trust me, with a graduate degree specializing in archival film and a past life in independent movie marketing and distribution, I’ve seen a lot of political documentaries.)

The film provides much-needed insight into what’s been going on in the Red States of America over the past ten years. Mims may focus on a single issue but he gives us the big picture. In fact, that’s what makes Starving the Beast so successful. The overview of the past decade’s various battles to defund and dismantle public universities serves as a lens on the conservative movement’s coordinated campaign to diminish public trust in government institutions and services. What’s worse, it’s an attack on institutions that both embody states’ pride and enable their future growth and well-being by graduating future leaders and innovators. They’re hitting us where it hurts.

The story hurts even more here in Texas because it started here. There is no Starving the Beast without Texas. That’s because there is no conservative movement to “disrupt” public universities without a disgruntled former UT faculty member, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and Rick Perry.  The film opens with a recounting of the now infamous “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education that Rick Perry put into effect at Texas A&M in 2011 to disastrous results. It also recounts the showdown between former University of Texas, Austin president Bill Powers and UT Regent Wallace Hall, featuring interviews with both. (Powers spoke on a panel at the screening I attended in March and received a standing ovation from the audience. It was his first time seeing the film.)

The interviews that form the heart of the film are well-edited and easy to understand.  Subjects range from the architects of the policy “innovations” and advocates for funding cuts to faculty and administrators fighting to preserve the academic standards and freedoms essential to university education and research. Plus, there’s James Carville to make sure you understand what the hell these guys are trying to do (and it seems like they’re all guys) while having a really good time. But even James Carville can’t turn this thing completely around. Ultimately, the film is chilling.

Starving the Beast comes as the Texas conservative power structure is gearing up for another go round on public universities. Dan Patrick has already started his campaign to eliminate tuition set asides that make college possible for thousands of lower and middle income Texas students to attend college, even though the legislative session is still four months away. His motivation seems to be to satisfy the complaints of his voters who are angry over increases in tuition (necessary in a state that keeps cutting funding for public universities, colleges and community colleges) in a way that doesn’t affect them personally (and has the added bonus of cutting “giveaways” that help people who don’t deserve them since they’re poor already, a sure sign of being undeserving for those who believe in the Gospel of Wealth).

The film also suggests a new line of attack, one that we may well see when session gets underway in January. In North Carolina, the legislature went after specific institutes and research groups that produced scholarship critical of state government policies. That’s right: they passed laws that made it more difficult, if not impossible, for individual professors to continue with their research as they’d been conducting it. It’s not hard to imagine a legislature stung by major setbacks (think SCOTUS decisions) to stifle any potentially critical evidence (especially since they’re supposed to show evidence supporting their legislative directives–think SCOTUS decision again). Ultimately, “disrupting” higher education looks as much like a drive to silence dissent as one to improve “value.”

Starving the Beast‘s Austin premiere comes the same week US News & World Report released its 2017 college and university rankings. The news is not good. UT fell four spots this year, going from #52 to #56 nationally, where it’s tied with SMU and University of Georgia. Judged against other “top public schools”, UT’s #18. Texas A&M is at #74 this year, tied with American University, Clark University, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Virginia Tech. A&M is #27 among top public schools. Those rankings would be hard to take in a state that truly cared about its public universities. Thank goodness we don’t live in one of those.

Starving the Beast plays at the Violet Crown in Austin starting Friday, September 16th. It premieres Friday, September 30th in Dallas and Houston. Dallas screenings will be at the Angelika Film Center. Houston screenings will be take place at Sundance Cinemas.


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