Have I got a movie for you! As best I can tell, you're not working on one right now. You see, I have been following your career ever since I watched Roger & Me (1989) in high school. I never forgot your inimitable depiction of late capitalism's collapse in Flint, Michigan. I remember how agonizing it must have been for you to see your hometown turn into a third-world country and to realize that the dream of earning a living wage as a factory worker was over. These days the only road to the middle class goes through college. (Remember when "bourgeois" was a bad word?)
So here I am in The Chronicle of Higher Education, read by university administrators and department chairs, and anyone else who swipes a copy from the faculty lounge. That means that right now my pitch to you is hitting the desks of the people who actually run universities. Faced with shrinking revenue, they have been forced to slash expenses.
There is no shortage of people writing books and op-eds—in these pages and elsewhere—about how to save the university. But their efforts don't usually get much attention beyond the ivory tower. That is where you come in, Michael. You made the top-grossing documentary of all time (Fahrenheit 9/11). When you pull out a bullhorn, even if people don't change their politics, they cannot help but listen. And when it comes to the ills of higher education, people need to listen.
Consider that when I graduated from high school in 1991, I could have gone to the University of Texas at Austin for around $1,500 (the annual in-state tuition). Today, not quite 20 years later, in-state tuition at Austin is nearly $9,000. Instead I was offered a generous scholarship by Sarah Lawrence College. Tuition, room, and board at that time seemed unbelievably extravagant: $23,150 (including the dorm and meal plan). What a difference a few decades make. My dear alma mater now costs almost $57,000. If tuition continues to increase at this rate, by the time I expect my son to graduate from college, in 2031, four years of a private-college education without financial aid could cost a cool half-million dollars.
But enough about me. This is a crisis that affects every American trying to make a decent living or pursue a coveted career. As I recently read in The New York Times Book Review: "The cost of a college education has risen, in real dollars, by 250 to 300 percent over the past three decades, far above the rate of inflation. Elite private colleges can cost more than $200,000 over four years. Total student-loan debt, at nearly $830-billion, recently surpassed total national credit-card debt."
That is hardly news for readers of The Chronicle, or for most people in higher education. The reality is so ever-present to us that it drones on like white noise. The air is full of our cries, but habit is a great deadener. That's from Waiting for Godot. We are waiting for someone, or something. Michael, we are waiting for you.
The university system is rife with inequities that need to be publicly exposed. Most egregious is the exploitation of part-time, adjunct faculty members, who are often dedicated, passionate professionals who work for low wages, with no stability. But I also encourage you to take your cameras outside the campus gates. Remember the middle-class people you saw disappear in Flint? Their descendants who strive to get a college degree—and a shot at the middle class—might face student-loan debt in six figures.
Mike—can I call you Mike?—people mistake you for an all-out leftist, but you are really more of a moralist. And you always knew how to tell a good story. People sympathize with your populism (though I could never quite buy into your conspiracy theories). You're skilled at identifying the sickness, despite advocating some rather dubious cures. That said, the solutions on offer from many university insiders and editorial writers are also way off the mark. Those people call for abolishing tenure without seeming to give a thought to the fragility of academic freedom. (A college professor could live with the stability of, say, a print journalist—a splendid idea!) When it comes to the fate of academic freedom, don't count me in for fostering such a radical change.
So, Mike, remember when you tried to track down Roger Smith? Charlton Heston? George W. Bush? Executives at Goldman Sachs? Well, the world did not change, but the combined gross of your films is staggering. More important, you made people think twice about the financial, international, and moral crises around all of us. The critics gave you a hard time about the details, but the bigger picture still resonated.
Unemployment continues to hover near 10 percent. We in the universities watch our students graduate ... to what, exactly? Debt. Joblessness. Despair. This system is not sustainable. As an idealistic teenager, I watched Roger & Me looking for someone to blame, and, needless to say, I found the movie as heartbreaking as it was satisfying.
I'll be honest: I have no idea who to blame for the woes of the academy. This is where you need to come in and do your thing, Mike. It's time for "Fahrenheit Higher Ed."
Burn after reading,
P.S. Oh, yeah, one more thing: I want a box-office percentage. I need to send my kid to college in 20 years.