‘Ivory Tower’ Review: A Useful Primer on the Current Crisis in Higher Education

Ivory Tower film

Andrew Rossi’s documentaries have displayed an interest in the inner workings, and limitations, of ambitious institutions. With his 2011 film Page One: Inside the New York Times, Rossi explored the crisis in print journalism from the perspective of journalism itself — namely, from the vantage point of how the Times reports on crises related to the production of print news from the paper’s media department. Page One was critiqued for a perceived lack of focus, for drastically switching between subjects and never quite figuring out what, or who, it wanted to address regarding the most famous and authoritative news publication in the English-speaking world.

It may come as something of a surprise, then, that Rossi’s follow-up tackles an even grander institution: the American higher education system, namely its enduring and complex monetary crises. Yet despite its sweeping subject matter, Ivory Tower lays out quite elegantly the many systemic problems, historical shifts and organizational changes that have contributed to the current crisis in higher education. The principal problem, Rossi’s film suggests, is that we have switched to seeing higher education as a transactional exchange, with students and their parents as “customers,” away from the classical model of, in one interviewee’s words, a “rehearsal space for democracy.”

Ivory Tower makes the case that the continued corporatization of higher education is different than similar phenomena in other spheres of life: it is disempowering an entire generation of thinkers, saddling them with debt, and eroding one of America’s most important institutions for emboldening equality, critical thinking and democratic action. This information-packed film occasionally skates over some complex subtopics a bit too thinly — the increasing replacement of full-time faculty with poverty-waged adjuncts; the enduring crisis of the humanities — but on the whole, Ivory Tower offers an informative, impassioned and timely overview of the current crisis in a remarkably accessible and organized manner. It is this year’s Inequality for All: a useful primer and a thorough introduction to a large, complex topic that has profound implications for many, many people living in the U.S.

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.

Ivory Tower does not assume “higher education” to mean one particular thing. The film covers the opportunities and limitations for students across Ivy League schools, historically black colleges, party-heavy state universities and even rare exceptions like the rural labor-based colleges, Silicon Valley-based anti-college movements and non-tuition-based institutions. While Ivory Tower overviews some proposed short-term “solutions” to the exponentially expensive investment of a bachelor’s degree in a continually unreliable economy, the film uses such solutions to explore the greater uncertainty that the future of higher education faces. For instance, the film explores the potential of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to close the education gap in theory but then quickly overviews the unique problems that such “solutions” entail: namely, low passing and completion rates and the apparent limitations of not having accessible, in-person interactions with professors. Thus, Ivory Tower offers a remarkably evenhanded and well-contextualized approach to its subject matter.

Ivory Tower doesn’t simply ask whether a four-year degree offers a worthwhile “investment” for college students who come out of their education saddled with massive debt (as the film’s advertising suggests), but asks how a country that struggles between the forces of democracy and capitalism invests culturally and ideologically in higher education in ways different from decades and centuries before. Where universities formerly offered largely stable means for social mobility and long-term investment in a country’s citizenry, universities’ competition for prestige and over-expensive amenities, combined with increasing cuts in public funding allocated to even the biggest of public schools, has resulted in a degree system that resembles a debt-run consumer market, not a laboratory for citizenship.

Rossi’s accomplishment here is his ability to illustrate clearly how certain problems that are experienced on a variety of levels are deeply interconnected. Where anybody who has experienced any of the difficulties on display here have seen part of the problem, Ivory Tower opens that entryway up to a deeper web of implications. Yet rather than compose a dry overview of institutional problems, Rossi’s film keeps the human element front-and-center. His investigation returns to two central human subjects: a first-generation college student experiencing a difficult first semester on full scholarship at Harvard and a student advocate protesting the formerly free Cooper Union’s controversial decision to mandate tuition. This human focus drives home the many ways that this greater problem affects a variety of institutions and individuals in a multitude of ways.

All said, Ivory Tower should only be regarded as an introduction to the crisis of higher education. It’s a thorough introduction, but an introduction nonetheless. Many of the topics Rossi addresses deserve films all their own, particularly those subjects only skimmed across here (namely, how unprecedented shifts in departmental funding have realized the increasing corporatization of the university within its curriculum). Where Ivory Tower might offer a nonfiction overview of Contemporary Higher Education 101, an intermediate course could be Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, which exhaustively examines changes in higher education as experienced from the inside of a well-known university, across many aspects of the institution. But as a CNN-friendly overview of the subject (Ivory Tower is supported by CNN Films), Ivory Tower is an accomplished exegesis of contemporary higher education that people really need to see.

Ivory Tower opens June 13th in New York City and Los Angeles. For expanding dates, see the film’s Take Part page.