The higher education crisis is not a singular, standalone entity. It affects faculty, who are seeing their departmental funding slashed and compete over adjunct jobs without benefits in the face of skyrocketing wages for senior administrators. It affects students and their families, who struggle with justifying the cost of higher education and weighing the prospect of a lifetime of loan debt while schools add expensive amenities in order to compete with other universities. It is felt in state funding where, as a result of a public push towards austerity, public officials find themselves increasingly unable or unwilling to reliably fund public universities. The crisis is perhaps most profoundly yet most invisibly experienced in the many young people who never get a chance to graduate from or even apply to college, with our wealth and achievement gaps continually expanding.
This is a complex topic whose many aspects are currently playing out inside and outside campuses, from the floor of a Senate unwilling to pass Elizabeth Warren’s student loan refinancing bill to a digital sphere experimenting with lucrative and controversial Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower investigates the many moving parts of the higher education crisis. As I observed about the film in my review, “The ‘ivory tower,’ in this case, refers not to a privileged sphere of intellectual discourse incongruous with the ‘real world,’ but to the unsustainable financial bubble higher education has found itself in. The film covers the shift from seeing higher education as a public good to a private product with the onset of Reagan-era economics and the growth of student loan industry.”
I spoke with Rossi about summarizing the higher education crisis in 90 minutes and never losing sight of the human element when trying to make sense of a systemic problem.
Nonfics: How did this project get started? More specifically, when did you realize that a film on the crises in higher education needed to be made?
Andrew Rossi: It was kind of fortuitous. I finished working on my last movie — Page One: Inside the New York Times, about the newspaper crisis — in 2011, and that was the moment when student loan debt went beyond a trillion dollars. A lot of important questioning about the mission of college as an institution in our society came about, and people on both sides were arguing that there was something broken in higher education. One of the most vocal critics was Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, who thought that the system was so broken that he offered students $100,000 to drop out of school. His 20 Under 20 fellowship took off that year, too. Those were two really important inspirations for me. I think that now is the time to bring cameras on the ground across the country to see what’s really going on.
Your cameras did seem to be on some rather wide-reaching grounds, showing how the multiple moving parts of this crisis affects all different types of institutions and the people within them. Your portrayal of Cooper Union’s decision to charge tuition was particularly compelling, especially the student who you focus on as the spokesperson of the occupation. How did your cameras happen to be there during the student occupation?
We were actually in San Francisco filming the UnCollege movement when the students at Cooper Union occupied the president’s office. We returned at the end of that week and I went to The Great Hall, the main building of Cooper Union. I had seen Victoria Sobel in coverage of the movement, and she had this distinctive dyed blonde-and-black hair. I couldn’t go up to the president’s office at that time, and I was waiting for her to come downstairs. And so after stalking the building for a while, she appeared and we talked for a little while and figured out a way to cover what the students were doing. They were there for a couple of months, and it became easier to go in the office to capture them. We also were able to find a student who very deftly covered the occupation itself and some of the other actions. So in the film you see footage of students in real time literally climbing the stairs and occupying.
Your documentary illustrates such a complex, systemic problem in a way that’s accessible without oversimplifying it. But you combine this with a real human element. You follow some select human subjects to track how this crisis affects them on the ground. How did you go about making your choices?
It’s a challenge because we wanted to not simplify things too much. But on the other hand, in order to compress arguments and character stories into 90 minutes, there were some tough choices that had to be made. I think our approach was to find the essence of a range of experiences in a particular school or a particular professor or student or program. And let that speak for itself. Then make the connective tissue to get from one point to another. Finding David Boone at Harvard, for instance, brought to life the incredible opportunity that higher education can provide. David was at one point homeless but, through assistance, was able to get to Harvard and pursue his dream of going into technology and learning computer science. So his journey is kind of iconic of that particular aspect of higher education.
And then Victoria, with her striking physical presence — with her hair and the red square she wears with a pin on her lapel — she’s an embodiment of the student activist spirit, which is really poignant because what she’s learned in school, this humanistic learning, is what then drives her to protest what the administration of the school is doing. So she’s also an iconic character.
Andy Delbanco is also iconic. We see him walking along the campus of Columbia describing how it can be a melancholy experience for a professor because the students replenish themselves but he’s getting older. This culls forth an existential experience the professor has, repeating their lesson and trying to imbue the students with excitement about the discipline that they teach. So we were searching for people like that, who bring about these different ideas, and then figured out a way that they can be woven into this broader story about how higher education has changed since 1636 when Harvard was founded, then later the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, etc.
Have you kept up with David (of Harvard) and Victoria (of Cooper Union) since filming?
Yes, and they’re both doing very well. David finished up his sophomore year at Harvard and is interning at Microsoft Seattle. I saw him this weekend at the Seattle Film Festival and he’s thriving. Victoria graduated from Cooper Union and she’s still really involved in the Free Cooper Union movement. Her life is divided between working on that and other things, but she’s still very passionate about Cooper Union.
Like many people who will see this film, I’ve experienced firsthand the tension between the values of higher education against the prospect of going into a life of student loan debt. What is it that you seek viewers of this film to take away in terms of the role that higher education is potentially losing in contemporary life, or the role that higher education should play within a 21st century context?
One of the main things we hope viewers will see in the film is the role that higher education has historically acted as a public good in society. And this notion that students should take on debt and suffer the consequences is a result of a change in philosophy toward thinking that higher education is a private good. I hope that viewers will come away from this understanding that college is more than a means of getting a better job or making more money over the course of their lives, but rather can contribute to their moral uplift.
To begin with, I hope that it clarifies the context in which higher education has changed in the last several years and how we’ve arrived at this point where the cost has risen 1,120% and student loan debt is so out of control. The film itself is hopefully an objective journalistic look at this problem, but hopefully it can be used as a tool for many different initiatives, whether it be Senator Warren’s legislation to help students refinance their debt the way consumers refinance their auto loans or mortgages, or state-based initiatives to increase public funding for state universities and other similar campaigns.
What are some of the things that surprised you most when making this film?
The numbers are very striking. The spike in tuition costs since 1978, rising by 1,120%, which is more than the rise in the cost of health care and food — and more than inflation, of course. Statistics about completion rates at public universities were also extremely troubling. 68% fail to graduate in four years, and that number goes to 44% in six years. That’s a terrible success rate for any industry or service provider, and the fact that that’s happening on our public campuses is, I think, something that needs a lot of attention to be paid. Students who have a BA or college degree make about a million dollars more over the course of their lives than students who only have a high school diploma. And that’s great, but what about the students that attended and didn’t even finish? They’re not included in that statistic, and we’re talking about potentially 44% of those students. I find that really troubling.
Looking at Page One and Ivory Tower, in your work as a documentarian you seem to be very interested in trying to make sense of institutions that are in crisis at this particular moment, of which there seems to be many. Would that be a fair assessment of your work and the questions you want to try to answer?
Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. That’s the way that I as a filmmaker make sense of something I’m drawn to. Both of these stories are about disruption and change within institutions that have so many good values at their root, but for a host of external factors (and some internal) are at the breaking point.
What’s next for you?
I’m developing a film about mental illness with Participant Media. It’s still in the development phase, and I’m in the process of trying to see what story we may be able to tell there.
Ivory Tower is currently in theaters.