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What ‘Ivory Tower’ Gets Wrong

The documentary film Ivory Tower takes on national debates about higher education and renders them as compelling dramas, stories, and scenes. Andrew Rossi, the film’s talented director, previously used similar techniques to raise probing questions about the future of print journalism in an age of digitalization in his film Page One. Now Rossi asks whether “college is worth the cost,” and uses that question to tap into disturbing and pervasive concerns about whether higher education has lost its way.

My first response on seeing the film, as an academic (now administrator) who has spent an entire career in college settings, was to welcome the depiction of the dilemmas and challenges confronting a range of institutions. Yet the film made me increasingly uneasy, despite its illustrations of the power of undergraduate education. In the end, its message is that all but a handful of elite private institutions have failed to deliver a product worth the exponentially increasing price of education.

The film is right to depict the extraordinary success of some of our great private institutions in teaching undergraduates both life skills and the life lessons of the liberal arts, while affording access to students who never used to dream of an Ivy League education. It is also right to point out that those institutions are the exceptions, far from the rule. Yet Ivory Tower slides into dangerous terrain when it seems to suggest there is little to differentiate higher education outside of Harvard Yard. It leaves little hope of high-quality higher education for a broad public.

While the film holds out a hint that the moral education offered (through one of its most poignant illustrations) by a utopian experimental college, Deep Springs, is still worthwhile—and potentially life changing—it ultimately fails to diagnose the fundamental problems that lead, for example, to Peter Thiel’s much-publicized efforts to dissuade students from going to college. It also fails to provide an enduring sense of the value of the education afforded by a wide range of institutions that have continued to struggle to do their best despite the significant disinvestment of states and the growing loss of conviction that higher education is a public rather than private good.

An example of a major lacuna in the documentary is how, in its statistics on student debt, it makes no mention of the outsize role played by for-profit institutions in generating those numbers. As Suzanne Mettler has recently shown in her book Degrees of Inequality, while only one in eight students pursuing four-year degrees is enrolled in a for-profit college, that group is responsible for a quarter of all student-loan debt, and nearly half of student-loan defaults in the United States. At the same time, there is no mention in the film of a recent study by the Brookings Institution showing that student debt at public universities has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades, despite extensive media coverage of the small percentage of students whose debt has grown beyond manageable proportions.

It is indisputable, however, that student debt is a problem, especially since the recession has diminished the job prospects of young people entering a rapidly transforming economy. This is an economy in which the unskilled jobs, with their absurdly low wages and minimal benefits, that proliferated over previous decades have now become the only plausible careers for growing numbers of people who are being moved out of skilled positions that have fallen victim to either globalization or new technology. This is also the economy in which states provide more support to prisons than to schools and colleges and in which changing modes of capital accumulation have led to levels of income inequality on a global scale not seen since World War I.

But let’s not mistake symptom for cause: Ivory Tower implicitly asks us to accept the idea that government (or, for that matter, the public itself) has only limited responsibility for public institutions (such as universities) because those institutions appear to be doing such an inefficient and ineffective job. The fault is in the college, not in a society that has lost the will to support institutions that for years have powered our economy, developed our technology, educated our democracy, and enlivened our imagination.

This is not to say that all is well with our colleges. No one can deny that costs need to be re-examined and trimmed, that academic standards need shoring up, that collegiate party and consumer culture should be subjected to serious controls, that sexual assault occurs with far too much frequency, that big-time college athletics are ripe for reform, that the scramble for new revenue sources has the potential to distort the core academic mission, or, for that matter, that the balance between teaching and research, or between general education and vocational training, is not always perfect. As long as our house is not in order, we invite critique and skepticism.

But nor should we be silent about the fact that what is now colloquially called “administrative bloat” is, in large part, a necessary response to demands for greater levels of compliance with government rules covering areas like mental health, disability, and campus safety. We cannot allow the public to ignore the fact that most staff and teaching faculty members are significantly underpaid.

There is no magic pill, as Ivory Tower itself makes clear in its trenchant account of the failure of the romance over MOOCs between San Jose State University and the online for-profit Udacity.

Small wonder that observers outside the academy are asking whether college is still “worth it.” For too long we have neglected the need to aggressively defend, explain, and promote the value of the education our institutions provide, not just for individuals but for society as a whole. Even as public support has dwindled and tuition has continued to rise, there has been a widely shared assumption, at institutions both private and public, that the value proposition of higher education would remain unchallenged. Those days are over.

Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, once noted that the “university plays its highest role and meets its most profound obligation by its contributions to the moral and intellectual life.” His utopian belief that “worth” can and must be measured by moral and societal as well as vocational and instrumental criteria needs to be articulated over and again in ways that challenge the implicit message of Ivory Tower.

Many of us in the public sector also need to explain that we continue to provide extraordinary educations and critical research (along with much public service), despite the precipitous decline in public support and the still relatively low tuition we charge. My own institution, for example, is ranked close to Harvard for its research while it recruits almost as many Pell Grant recipients as the entire Ivy League combined. Forty percent of our students pay no tuition, while 60 percent complete their degrees without any outstanding debt, and for the rest who do, the average obligation is well under $20,000.

I therefore take this film—and the national debate to which it gives a powerful voice—as a clarion call to all of us in the world of higher education to rise to a pressing challenge. If the public benefits of a college education are no longer a self-evident truth, we have a compelling responsibility to substantiate our conviction that they should be once again. We must make the case through both the conduct and the performance of our universities (and yes, we have to introduce changes to meet the new challenges and demands of the 21st century), and through the arguments we make. Only we can explain why the ideals—and realities—of the great American university still deserve commitment and support.

Nicholas B. Dirks is chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

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