The conservative movement in the United States has long been wary of higher education. This is understandable given the fact that survey after survey demonstrates a positive correlation between education and progressive values. Conservatives tend to attribute this phenomenon to mass brainwashing by elite liberal professors coupled with a conspiracy to blacklist anyone who tells what they consider to be the truth. Indeed, educated hucksters like David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes have made a tidy fortune from their gullible funders by hawking exactly this silly idea: smearing academics with McCarthyite tactics as they simultaneously complain about the communities of competence that struggle to maintain the integrity of their disciplines.
In addition to these mini-crusades, right-wing foundations and funders have enjoyed considerable dividends from the program of long-term investments they made in private universities beginning in the 1970s, when a bunch of them decided that the entire edifice of public knowledge was tilted against their worldview. More recently, however, the far right has turned its attention away from these elite-oriented universities to public ones. Instead of seeking to change the minds—and hiring practices—of the Harvards and Stanfords of the world, they are now seeking to undermine the intellectual standards of state universities across America. They are doing this by persuading Republican-controlled state legislatures and governorships to pass massive cuts in funding while attacking the very foundations of higher education. The new demand is that public universities should be treated as any corporate entity, to be judged not as a social good but exclusively on its bottom line. (I should probably mention that I teach in a public university and that my daughter is beginning her freshman year at another this fall.)
The documentary Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities, which opens this week, seeks to tell this story. It focuses on fights taking place at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, Louisiana State University, and the University of Texas and Texas A&M. You may be familiar with some of the details of these struggles, as each has enjoyed its share of national attention. What this film demonstrates is the degree to which all of them share similar roots. As UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan explains, Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, pioneered the notion of applying an ideology he termed “disruptive innovation” to public higher education. The concept was also embraced in Silicon Valley as “a parable that had tremendous narrative power,” “a religious sect,” and an idea that could be “applied to everything in American life.”
As applied to education, the doctrine treats students as consumers, not citizens. According to its most energetic apostle, Texas oilman and itinerant academic Jeff Sandefer, it demands that pretty much every topic taught in a university demonstrate its bottom-line value or be dropped. According to Sandefer, Shakespeare barely makes the cut, but Faulkner, not so much. “I’m not a big Faulkner fan,” he explains in the film.