‘Ivory Tower’ Trains Cameras on U.S. Higher Education

By Mark Walsh — June 20, 2014 4 min read
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If you were going to make a documentary examining the state of higher education in the United States, there would be a lot of ground you might cover.

There’s the ever-intensifying admissions game for the country’s most selective colleges. There’s the outsized role of the U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings. There is the debate over faculty tenure polices and higher education’s heavy reliance on adjunct instructors. There is the plan in the works by President Barack Obama’s administration to rate colleges, possibly based on the success of their graduates at getting jobs and earning salaries. And then there is the hot-button debate over the for-profit sector of higher education.

“Ivory Tower,” a documentary opening for a limited theatrical run in several cities on Friday, doesn’t cover any of those topics. But it is none the worse for those exclusions. In a taut 90 minutes, the film covers plenty of other of relevant issues.

One is the rise in college costs, driven by a sort of arms race among universities to build new student athletic facilities with rock climbing walls; new dorms—rather, residence halls, as colleges prefer to call them—that feel like luxury condos; and other campus construction projects. (Tuition for U.S. higher education institutions has gone up 1,120 percent since 1978, far outpacing inflation, the film points out.)

Another issue examined in the film is the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which were all the rage when filming was going on for “Ivory Tower” just one to two years ago. Besides telling the basic story of for-profit MOOC concerns such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX, the film looks at an attempt in California to use online courses to provide the remedial work needed by many students at San Jose State University, part of the state’s mid-tier California State system. The results were not what the participating parties had hoped for.

Rossi, who directed 2011’s “Page One,” a cinema verité look at inner workings of The New York Times, relies on a number of recent books on the state of higher education, and interviews with their authors, for his thesis that colleges have embraced a business model that favors expansion over quality learning.

These include Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University (College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be) and Jeffery J. Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education (College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students), among others.

Delbanco says in the film that the nation has reached a point in which “the very concept of the institution of higher learning as we know it is about to be broken.”

As I watched the 90-minute “Ivory Tower,” I thought of Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley,” last year’s four-hour-plus slice of his film crew’s multi-week visit to the flagship University of California campus. Wiseman’s film also struck on the theme of the financial pressures on the modern university, but did not cover all the issues that Rossi’s film does. (Not that Wiseman was trying to do so; “At Berkeley” is a very different film.)

Rossi takes us on a visually arresting, whirlwind tour, from Harvard University’s intense freshman computer science course, to a raucous pool party at Arizona State University (No. 2 on Playboy magazine’s list of top party schools); to historically black Spelman College, and unique Deep Springs College in California’s Death Valley (where young men study Nietzsche in the morning and tend to a ranch in the afternoon); and to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.

Rossi has some stunning footage of a 2013 controversy at Cooper Union over the administration’s effort to impose the college’s first-ever student tuition after making some bad loan and investment decisions. (Founder Peter Cooper had left an endowment and declared that an education at the school should be “open and free to all.”) Students rebel, taking over the president’s office for months. The film sympathizes with them, even though most viewers will probably wonder when the students will realize that they will have to join the real world, where most of us had to pay tuition.

The film also spends some time with Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, who is behind the movement to pay some bright young students $100,000 to drop out of college. There’s also the larger Uncollege and Hacking Your Education movements, which encourage young people to not take out $60,000 or more in student loans to attend college when they can take MOOCs to learn all they need to know.

At a forum Thursday night after a Washington screening of the film at the American Film Institute’s documentary festival, Rossi, Selingo, and Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, discussed some of issues of college costs.

Rossi noted that when he started the film, the rise of MOOCs was creating a “sense of existential threat to colleges,” but that the San Jose State experiment had let some of the air out of that bubble. Carnevale discussed some of the economic pressures of the current system, and Selingo talked about the need to scale up improvements for the masses, which for him meant training attention on the public university system, which educates the vast majority of students.

It was the type of panel discussion about higher education that goes on a million times every year. But it’s more fun to watch those issues come to life on the big screen, and “Ivory Tower” does a pretty good job with that.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.