• September 3, 2015

An Open Letter to Michael Moore

Fahrenheit Higher Ed 1

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

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,

David Yaffe

P.S. Oh, yeah, one more thing: I want a box-office percentage. I need to send my kid to college in 20 years.

David Yaffe, an assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, is author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton University Press, 2005). His next book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, will be published by Yale University Press this year.


1. dzrlib - January 10, 2011 at 03:16 pm

Amen ... I was fortunate to have been able to attent UCLA in 1959 at a total cost of $100/year and my daughters attented UCR in the 1980s for only $4000/year ... My suggestion would be to attent a junior college before attending a state college/university.

2. robertkase51 - January 10, 2011 at 05:33 pm

I'd pay real money to see that movie.

3. 11293505 - January 12, 2011 at 06:58 am

I remember it vividly. At a Yale graduation in the late 1970s a student speaker welcomed the parents of matriculating seniors by asking: "How do you like your $20,000 bonus babies?" He was referring to the four-year cost of a Yale undergraduate education at that time--which, to most parents, seemed outrageously high. Today it is more than $200,000. Compare that ten-fold increase with the parallel increase in Yale faculty salaries....on average, it's been about a five-fold increase. I have no doubt that this anecdotal recollection from one institution will be borne out by more rigorous statistical analysis throughout higher education generally. College and university tuitions have increased at a far greater rate than have faculty salaries. Where are those vast sums of money going?

4. 22228715 - January 12, 2011 at 07:48 am

I must be a tad older than you because I saw Roger and Me in college. My memory is that in addition being amazing in that it was both sad and funny at the same time, my main reactions were to vow to never ever work in the auto industry, and never ever go to Flint. I'm thinking that it might not be a good thing (at least for me) if lots of people had a similar response about higher education.

(Granted: the fact that it sounds like most people (even those who work in higher ed) are genuinely mystified by why college tuition is more now than it used to be, and that they seem fairly unaware of the basic factors certainly proves your point about needing a lot more discussion and exposure.)

5. lucystoner - January 12, 2011 at 08:09 am

Here, here Prof Yaffe! I am guessing MM will be tied up for a while, making (my conjecture here only) a documentary called Big Problem about the BP oil spill. But lucky for us, higher ed will still be in the crapper when he finishes that project, and still in desperate need of his cinematic intervention.

6. mlisaacs - January 12, 2011 at 08:22 am

A Michael Moore film is a great idea. It is time to "follow the money" in higher education.
The banks that are getting rich off of student loans, the corruption of collegiate sports,
the competition to attract and recruit students without regard for their futures, and the
circle of elite college Presidents who move in and out of government, think tanks, and lobby
organizations, would be a good start.
Then some examination of what has happened to the students who have graduated in
the past 20 years with crushing debt, salaries that do not allow for repayment and worse,
no jobs, would be the next step.
Finally, what has happened to the faculty, with somewhere around 70% being adjuncts
who struggle to make ends meet and those who remain, left as "managers" to co-ordinate
it all, leaving little time excellent teaching, should be included. There will come a time
in the very near future, when there will be no qualified teachers to educate our children.
Why would anyone bother to get a Phd. in this debt ridden environment?
Very soon, this will become a threat to our national security. If legacy students are the dominant
population of our elite colleges, talented and brilliant students will be left out of the loop. Without an educated population, ready to solve the world's problems, our country will be vulnerable. Is it possible that the present power structure is so "global" that
it does not care? There will be plenty of engineers and scientists in China.

7. jkisner - January 12, 2011 at 10:06 am

Wonder what MM would find in the recesses of state and federal governments and personnel concerning financial aid and student loans? Now there's a cesspool if I ever smelled one, especially the gross inequities between state and private state-supported institutions (at least in PA).

8. blog21 - January 12, 2011 at 10:10 am

I'm not a fan of Moore's work at all, but this is a topic he SHOULD tackle.

9. cwoodso1 - January 12, 2011 at 10:13 am

By far the most entertaining piece I have read in my life! I, too, would thoroughly enjoy seeing a documentary that sheds some light on the ever growing cost of higher education. Well done!

10. thlcornman - January 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

One thing that has to be added to this discussion is a shift to far more of a consumer mentality on the part of parents and students. They want more and more services, but for the same amount of money or less. I'm older than most of the respondents or the author (went to a private college in the 70s for less than $2000/yr), but didn't have an large and almost opulent student center to enjoy, multiple choices for every meal, a climbing wall in the fitness center, etc. Many of the costs associated with that significant increase in tuition and room and board come from the demands placed on colleges to provide a resort-like setting. In reality in my current situtation the added charges for tuition are not flowing into higher faculty salaries or even more faculty positions. It's going to more student life staff, more events on campus for students which are not directly related to education outcomes, and new buildings with all the latest technology and decor. And, that's a whole other discussion. How much of the added costs are technology related. Remember, I went to college before the personal computer!

Education appears to be a part of the university/college experience but not the primary focus. My guess is that increased costs can be traced to student and parent expectations apart from the educational value of going to college. We've had students comment that they are surprised the faculty expect working hard to be an educated person should be their primary task. They chose our university. some have said, so that education wouldn't interfere with their lives!

Maybe MM could indeed follow the money. But, I'm not sure movie goers will enjoy finding out that they might be contributing to the problem.

11. hildavcarpenter - January 12, 2011 at 10:21 am

You have to be kidding. I cannot believe the Chronicle would post this article. Your education clearly did not include a venue of true research, because Michael Moore's movies do not validate all research sources, e.g. countering opinions. His movies are hype to generate fear, and generate high box office monies. Your last statement validates this point. I am not saying that Universities' tuition has not risen in 20 years. However, has not everything? Administrative costs, professor's pay, repairing aging buildings, growing admissions due to larger admissions. For example the University of Texas, was much smaller 20 years ago than now.

As I say, this is an under researched article, just as Michael Moore's movies, simply asking for money. Just as Michael Moore's movies hype fear and ask for money.

Attacking our Education system is not what we need, we need to support dialogue to help build our education system, not fear it with a silly movie.

12. cfox53 - January 12, 2011 at 10:32 am

re: thlcornman - I second what he says - if we really want to look critically at costs we need to include all the 'lifestyle' costs that parents and students insist on having. When we look at surveys (published here in the chronicle and elsewere) we see faculty and admin salaries at best matching inflation - but look at the costs of physical plant, student services that are beyond the academic mission, etc.

13. swish - January 12, 2011 at 10:42 am

Hilda, I don't think this op-ed piece was meant to be taken for a research article.

14. atana09 - January 12, 2011 at 10:47 am

Micheal Moore's films are not intended as academic research, and if they were presented in such a manner who would watch them except white haired academics? There is more than enough formal academic research about how American Higher ed has sold it's soul and its students to a ever descending spiral of costs and debt.

Like it or not, our perception of idealized ivory towers cannot survive with the reality of academe being effectively a derivative of the lending industry. But not enough of the general public read the academic sources on this matter so little or no light is allowed to break through that murk. They intuitively know academe has serious problems in this context but do not know what these are and how pervasive the problems.
Moore, is quite skilled at bringing out the human costs of trends normally only seen in numbers, charts and dry statements by policy wonks. Should he be persuaded to do such a film, well perhaps that might provide enough public outrage to finally drive the snakes from the Ivy. Others have tried, such as Collinge, but they do not have the status or unique abilities as a filmmaker which Moore possesses. Go to it Moore!

15. 11223140 - January 12, 2011 at 10:49 am

Wow -- learned academics posting about the great mystery of why higher education costs so much nowadays? Really? Thank goodness that posters #10 and #12 at least document two lonely voices of reason. Employees of higher education entities posting comments related to a silly puff piece, apparently expressing either outrage or mystery about "why college costs so much" is actually pretty funny...and sad at the same time...much like "Roger & Me."

Reminder to those looking for bank profit and/or corruption in student loans -- I hope you are looking at private loan portfolios, since there are no banks involved in federal student lending any more.

Take a look around your campuses, this time with your eyes open. The technology race that puts wireless access everywhere (and will surely by the next electronic toys everyone wants), the facilities students and parents absolutely demand for recreation, housing, food, you name it; the buildings that do not go up for free; the cost of heating buildings in the northern hemisphere when for some reason we insist on educating students EXCEPT during our few warmest months; exploding health care and retirement costs spread out over millions of current and former employees...and on and on. Wake up to reality! If Michael Moore makes the requested film, be prepared to learn what you already know.


16. 11261897 - January 12, 2011 at 10:57 am

How about having Moore do one of his exposes on big-time athletics?

17. kabrams - January 12, 2011 at 11:38 am

I was very excited about this idea and did a little fist pump at the comments supporting an expose on the ridiculous cost of higher education.

Then I read thlcornman's, #10, comment about how the rising costs stem not from education, but from parent and student expectations that college should be more than that. I paused, and rethought this issue.

Perhaps in the 70s, the college experience came from the social experiences that occurred naturally as a result of the environment. Today, colleges manufacture the environment to create an image that the college experience will be so much better because of that state of the art fitness facility, the tech-packed student lounges, and so on. Why? For student-enrichment? To curb excessive partying? To compete against other schools? I'm sure there are plenty of legitimate reasons, but in the end, college must provide a haven for student learning, life enrichment, entertainment, social networking, maturity, professional growth, and career exploration.

That's what college has become --a whole-life experience in which one dwindling part seems to be education, if you define it in a limited scope. To manufacture all of that, I'm surprised it's not more expensive in some cases. I would hope a Michael Moore public investigation could uncover that too.

18. gahnett - January 12, 2011 at 11:49 am

Would potential students decide not to take on crushing debt to go to college even if they were aware that they are entering a limited jobs market? Education is a pretty robust business.

The biggest complaint I have is this whole increase tuition/increase financial aid nonsense. I believe that this allows universities to acquire spending potential without much ado, so that when times get rough, they can withold aid and still collect on the higher tuition from those who can afford it. This is banking bs that is clearly legal but will lead to long-term problems such as elitist selection.

19. robertjudd - January 12, 2011 at 11:55 am

Just a reminder that technology and IT departments need to be factored in to the rising costs. A serious look at the question of the rising cost of higher education will factor in these things and, e.g., the change in what it costs to set up a typical science lab today compared to 1985, pre-desktop computer days. I have a hunch that this line is at least as significant as administrative increases.

20. amcneece - January 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I must be older than dirt. When I started to Texas Tech in the fall of 1959, tuition was $25 per semester. Fortunately, as the valedictorian of my senior (high school) class, I had a full tuition scholarship! I never had to pay tuition, even though it doubled (to $50) in 1960. Books were the big expense - which would sometimes run as much as $35 to $40 per term. It seems like universities and hospitals have much in common when it comes to rampant inflation. Every hospital thinks it should have the latest in diagnostic equipment - both for reasons of "prestige" and self-protection. You have a headache? Get a CAT scan. The hospital doesn't want to get sued! Similarly, it seems that every university has to have the biggest supercomputer, the most modern recreational facilities, and the most impressive football stadium. It's a matter of competing with other universities for students AND faculty. Perhaps we need to decentralize higher education and encourage more small liberal arts colleges where most of the teaching/learning takes place in the classroom with little expensive equipment - or outside under a tree!

21. sand6432 - January 12, 2011 at 01:13 pm

No one has mentioned the extra costs involved in complying with ever increasing federal, state, and local regulations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Not that such regulations were not needed, but they do not come cheaply for the universities that have to comply.---Sandy Thatcher

22. bowl_haircut - January 12, 2011 at 03:36 pm

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the swelling of academic middle management and the often enormous salaries and benefit packages these administrators enjoy.

We can talk about the Club Med-ization of American colleges and universities all day long, but if you really want to follow the money in higher education, take a long hard look at the one academic caste that has actually grown since the 1970s--academic administrators.

23. civilprof - January 13, 2011 at 03:46 pm

Yes, amcneece, you ARE older than dirt. You are 70, and I think dirt just turned 67.

24. kathrine9 - January 17, 2011 at 01:41 am

perhaps older, but also wiser amcneece - since I think what you say makes good sense - why not have 'no frills' universities for those that take their education seriously - since many people in this discussion seem to think that supplying technology is the basis of increased fees - personally I think that's a bit of a smoke-screen, (if it was true, it is something that MM would be able to penetrate) - since the bulk-buying of these kinds products would bring the price down considerably and many of the other services, like the gymnasiums usually require an additional fee. In other words, none of the reasons given here, can realistically account for the massive increases in fees, and if they did, then the university has it's priorities wrong.
Personally, I think it's possible there are more sinister motives at work here ie as higher education becomes accessible mostly for the elite - a certain power structure is preserved for a select few, which might otherwise have to be shared by many. Then the 'many' uneducated become slaves to the educated elite. Just a thought.

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