‘Starving the Beast:’ Film, discussion event asks whether public universities should be businesses or a public good

Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities

Englert Theatre — Monday, Oct. 17

A free screening and discussion of the film Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities at the Englert Theatre tonight will look at the political and economic issues facing America’s public universities — including decreased public funding from states and rising tuition costs for students.

The film centers around a key question: Should public universities be seen as a public good, something from which everyone benefits and helps to support, or as a business, with degree-seeking students as the consumers?

“This documentary invites a community conversation about what we, as Iowans and Americans, want from our higher education system — and what we as taxpayers are willing to contribute to have an educated public,” Teresa Mangum, the director of the University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, wrote in an email.

She said that many individuals used to support the belief that a liberal arts education was necessary — not just as a helpful tool for an individual seeking a successful career but as a key foundation of democracy.

“This film asks what happened to that vision?” she wrote. “When did we decide providing a state-supported education to our citizens was a luxury for the wealthy rather than a necessity for responsible, well-reasoned civic debate and community vitality?”

The film looks at how state legislatures have impacted universities across the country, specifically through decreased funding.

Photo courtesy of Starving the Beast
Photo courtesy of Starving the Beast

“Today, many see these schools as providing monetary value to individual students, who, in a free market, should alone bear the cost of that education,” writer and director Steve Mims stated. “Furthermore, many also question the tax-payer worthiness of some course content offered in public higher education, arguing, ultimately, for a re-evaluation of the very ideas suitable for discussion in tax-payer underwritten schools.”

One example of public spending cuts highlighted by the film is in Wisconsin. In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker cut the public education budget by $1.85 billion. Funds for the University of Wisconsin system were cut by $250 million. Intended to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 also repealed collective bargaining for public employees, including university faculty and staff and employees at the university’s hospitals and clinics. Changes to tenure policies in the state have also made it easier to fire professors regardless of tenure status.

Although the film focuses on examples from Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas, similar issues are at play here in Iowa.

Professor Stephen Voyce, a tenured English professor and member of the Digital Studio for the Public Arts & Humanities, is one of a number of UI faculty and staff who have been leading the charge against the Iowa Board of Regents and last year’s hiring of Bruce Harreld, a former businessman who served as an executive at IBM, Kraft General Foods and Bostom Market Company. Voyce has made nearly two dozen FOIA requests to the university, mostly related to the hiring. He said he has run into issues with incomplete disclosures.

“The project to gut public education in states like Texas, Virginia, California and Wisconsin gives a clear picture of what will happen here in Iowa under [Gov. Terry] Branstad, [Board of Regents President Bruce] Rastetter and Harreld — that is, if we let them get their way,” Voyce wrote in an email. “The plan is simple enough: astronomical tuition hikes will replace sensible state funding, all to cut taxes for corporate actors and the wealthiest people in the state.”

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The film event is sponsored by a number of branches of the University of Iowa, including the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, the Public Policy Center, the UI Graduate Senate, the UI Student Government, the Faculty Senate, the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry and the UI American Association of University Professors, with support from FilmScene.

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