The right's war on college: "Starving the Beast" exposes the fight to destroy America's great public universities

Why does college cost so much? Because the far right is trying to undermine or privatize state universities

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 9, 2016 3:24PM (EDT)

Scott Walker; Rick Perry       (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reed Saxon/photo montage by Salon)
Scott Walker; Rick Perry (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Reed Saxon/photo montage by Salon)

Anyone who attended one of Bernie Sanders’ rallies during the Democratic primary campaign knows what the central issue was behind his call for “political revolution.” There was one unifying factor that drove Sanders’ unexpected groundswell of support and that crystallized all the themes of economic inequality and social injustice he repeated in stump speech after stump speech. Not by coincidence, it was also the most prominent issue on which Hillary Clinton ultimately felt compelled to move almost all the way to Sanders’ position, after repeatedly insisting that she disagreed with him. That issue was the cost of a college degree, perhaps the most visible symptom of a far-reaching attempt by the superrich and their ideological allies to reshape public education to serve their interests.

At a certain point in every rally, the Vermont senator would ask young people in the crowd to call out how much they owed in student debt. I’m twice the age of many Sanders voters, and I heard numbers that dwarfed any amount of debt that I have ever amassed in a lifetime of irresponsible credit-card spending. Generally, the winner in a Bernie call-and-response session owed somewhere between $90,000 and $120,000 in higher-education debt, but sums in excess of $150,000 were not unknown. Maybe that level of debt seems almost comprehensible for someone who went to Harvard or Stanford and then straight into law school or medical school, although I still suspect it’s likely to have a baleful effect on those individuals and the whole society. But Bernie’s core audience went well beyond the Georgetown Law demographic — they were likelier to be graduates of Penn State or Arizona State, UMass or UConn or UCLA. When kids from those schools enter adult life owing that kind of money, something has gone badly wrong.

But what was it that went wrong, exactly? To those of us who graduated from college before the extraordinary explosion of tuition rates over the last 20 years or so, it looked like some sort of dreadful accident: the unfortunate collision of fiscal crisis, political conflict and ballooning costs, or something. Universities were operating at enormous deficits, or so we were told, for reasons that were not entirely clear. State legislators apparently lacked the funds to make up the difference and definitely lacked the political will to raise taxes. What was to be done?

In one egregious example cited in the new documentary “Starving the Beast” (not an untypical example, sadly), public funding for Louisiana State University went from 75 percent of the school’s operating budget to about 13.5 percent — in nine years. It took LSU’s president threatening to furlough the university’s entire staff for a year before the state legislature decided to not make further cuts.

Even if you weren’t directly impacted by this issue or believed you weren’t, the disparity was shocking: At the lowest of those sums mentioned above, $90,000, my dad could have paid for my 1980s education at an elite private university — for roughly 21 years. Surely this was all a big mistake, right? No one intended to defund public colleges and universities and shift the cost of education so dramatically onto the shoulders of students and their families, did they?

Needless to say, that’s a leading question. As “Starving the Beast” makes all too clear, what happened to public higher education in America was no accident. Instead, it was one of the most ingenious and nefarious elements of a long-term right-wing assault on the public sphere. That assault has taken many forms in many places, but it represents the pursuit of a grand political and ideological goal under the cloak of “innovation” and “reform” and “disruption,” and its effects have been disastrous.

Director Steve Mims and his sources explore a series of battles over higher education at some of America’s most prestigious state universities — in Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin, for starters — that presented on the surface as being nonideological or at least nonpartisan. Although the outcomes of these conflicts varied, the content of the struggle was strikingly similar: Outside forces, presenting themselves as reformers seeking to make public education relevant to the 21st-century economy, tried to undermine or rewrite the basic mission of a major university. Tenure and academic freedom came under attack, as did disciplines in the liberal arts or humanities whose economic value was not immediately apparent. As Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, puts it in the film, Why should the taxpayers subsidize your daughter’s thesis about gender roles in medieval poetry?

We’re better off answering that question directly: We don’t know why. One aspect of the social contract, which many right-wingers and libertarians hope to shred, is that we fund certain things with our tax dollars without looking at them as business transactions. It’s entirely possible that young woman’s research project on the “Chanson de Roland” will be filed away in the university library, never to be read by human eyes again. But plenty of projects in engineering and the sciences go nowhere too, and we simply don’t know what great books or great ideas or revolutionary insights might flow from that scholar (or her future students) somewhere down the line. The entire point of higher education — or, let’s say, one of its most important points — is that it creates an environment of intellectual ferment that is likely to produce unforeseen and unimagined discoveries.

As University of Virginia historian Siva Vaidhyanathan says in “Starving the Beast,” the right-wing attack on public education rejects that model entirely. In state after state, supposed reformers like former business-school entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer, or Tea Party-infused Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin or former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, have sought to replace it with a nightmarish combination of a consumer-oriented business (where students are consumers and education is a commodity sold at its presumed market value) and a “techno-fundamentalist” Silicon Valley worldview where disruptive or revolutionary change is valued for its own sake.

Some of these crusaders, like Harvard Business School disruption-guru Clayton Christensen, may be true believers who think that American higher education will be better and more affordable if it is effectively privatized. Old-fashioned concepts like academic tenure and accreditation standards and federal student loans and wide-ranging research into abstruse topics stand in the way (such people would argue) of an efficient and economical delivery system for education that will maximize its social benefits. But honestly, beneath all the jargon the political motivations are glaringly obvious.

As LSU grad James Carville says in the film, the state-by-state attack on public higher education is closely aligned with many other right-wing causes. It dovetails perfectly with anti-tax czar Grover Norquist’s long campaign to starve many aspects of the public sphere into the private sector, and shrink the federal government so small that it can be drowned in the bathtub, in his famous phrase. It also fits with the stealth culture war being waged by Charles and David Koch, who have used endowed chairs and other strings-attached donations as a means of reorienting the ideological map at numerous colleges and universities. The fight to save America's state universities — which are literally the legacy of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln — from the tycoons and technocrats is the fight for the future. We've been losing that fight, but thanks to Bernie Sanders we are finally paying attention.

"Starving the Beast" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release and home video to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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