Last week, Pioneer Works hosted a film screening of documentarian Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower followed by a panel discussion about the increasing cost, complex ideological underpinnings, and social dynamics of higher education in the United States. The event coincided with a small exhibition of protest art from the Free Cooper Union campaign; the 2013 decision by the Cooper Union board to charge tuition for the first time since the school’s founding was a central point of discussion in both Ivory Tower and the ensuing panel discussion. The Cooper Union board’s decision is emblematic of broader trends within U.S. higher education.
Ivory Tower shows higher education institutions to be plagued by a race-to-the-top mentality that often manifests in increasingly expensive new facilities and outrageously luxurious student centers and dorms. The metrics used by The US News and World Report, which include selectivity of admissions, financial resources spent per student, and alumni giving rate reinforce a climate in which schools are forced to consider increasing financial wealth as integral to their continued reputation and academic success. Combine these trends with rising salaries for administration, progressively competitive admission, a decrease in funding for state universities, and the ease with which prospective students can receive student loans, and it’s easy to see the reasons behind the rapid shift of institutional financial burden onto the students’ shoulders. US student debt has now reached $1.2 trillion, with over fifty percent of loans either deferred or delinquent.
Ivory Tower draws on the viewpoints of critics of traditional higher education, proponents of the liberal-arts, boarding experience, and everything in between. Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University and author of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be and Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University offer perspectives from within elite institutions, although their opinions are extremely nuanced and sometimes critical. The film also presents the viewpoints of a variety of students, from a student attending Harvard on a full scholarship to teenagers who are choosing to pursue Thiel Fellowships instead of college. The film probes the success and failures of different models of massive online open courses (MOOCs). And, pertinently, Ivory Tower follows students protesting the Cooper Union decision to charge tuition, with some great footage of the occupation of the President’s office, and horrifying interviews with the bumbling President Jamshed Bharucha. What emerges from the film is a picture of a system engulfed in a series of complex, interwoven crises.
The panel discussion following the screening, moderated by Cooper Union alumnus and artist Benjamin Degen, featured Ajay Singh Chaudhary, founding Director of The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Catherine Despont, developer of educational programs at Pioneer Works, Jarrett Earnest, faculty liaison for BHQFU, a free, experimental school in the East Village, Ivory Tower director Andrew Rossi, and Free Cooper Union student organizer Victoria Sobel, who is featured prominently in the film.
The discussion largely centered on the complex, often problematic philosophical underpinnings of higher education. Jarrett Earnest immediately brought up what he termed the “assault on educational language”; words like “skills” are used to indicate post-graduate job prospects. He pointed out that art education has no specific “function,” and therefore it is difficult if not impossible to frame in the language of economic or social mobility. Earnest also pointed out that “free” can mean many things; BHQFU has open admission, no cost, and also no accreditation — the school has chosen to remove itself from many different types of traditional education metrics.
Catherine Despont described her experience teaching at NYU as revelatory as to how concerned students were with their financial prospects after college; she felt that this obsession with money detracted from students’ ability both to self-motivate their intellectual trajectory and to develop a sense of responsibility as citizens beyond the purely financial. In contrast, Andrew Rossi described his time at Yale in the 1990s as being extremely meaningful, a time in which he really did, as the cliché goes, “find himself.” He pointed out the value of the liberal-arts, boarding experience, while simultaneously acknowledging his privilege; his parents were able to pay his tuition.
The erosion of original educational missions by financial concerns was also discussed. Victoria Sobel pointed out the ways in which the founding vision of Peter Cooper and the original mission of Cooper Union were being changed by the decision to charge admission. Ajay Singh Chaudhary reminded the audience that politics is often involved in educational decisions; for example, one shouldn’t forget that the budget cuts to the University of California system were politically framed and motivated.
Both Ivory Tower and the panel discussion, while wading into philosophy, thankfully also didn’t lose sight of the very real burden of student debt. As Senator Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, the federal government makes 34 billion dollars of profit from student debt interest, and students are charged an almost 7% interest rate, while big banks are only charged a .75% interest. As Warren articulates, there is simply no excuse for the burden of debt placed on young people.
The problems in higher education, as an audience member pointed out, are also reflected throughout the educational system. Public schools are chronically underfunded, and private schools are increasingly expensive. In his 2013 commencement address at Cooper Union, Mayor Bloomberg stated, “there’s nothing really free in life … ” That attitude, as Chaudhary pointed out, is born from the economic thought of Milton Friedman, the Chicago school of economics, and late-twentieth century neoliberal thought. In education this philosophy is proving to be particularly, if unsurprisingly, unwise, leaving the United States with a completely unsustainable model for higher education.