‘Ivory Tower’ gives ‘panoramic coverage’ of flawed education system

by Andrew Kingsley | 11/9/14 5:58pm

The Space Race pitted the Soviet Union and United States against each other in a battle for space supremacy, spanning 17 years and leading to innovations in satellite technology, computers and space transport. The race also helped to bankrupt the Soviet economy.

Director Andrew Rossi’s latest documentary “Ivory Tower” (2014) presents an eerily similar battle among American universities, which race to out-build, -spend and -research their foes for Princeton Review ranking supremacy. The film was screened at Loew Auditorium on Friday evening, followed by a post-show discussion with Rossi and producer Kate Novack ’94, Rossi’s spouse.

When I sat down with Rossi for an interview after the film screening, I expected to meet a vengeful, agenda-driven filmmaker. I was surprised to hear that he loved his experiences as a Yale University undergraduate and a Harvard Law School student. An admirer of the liberal arts, Rossi felt compelled to direct a film that provoked “light bulb moments” among college administrators and U.S. citizens about the status of the country’s college system, especially rising tuition costs and student debt.

Rossi’s film gives a wide-ranging look at the fears surrounding the future of higher education. He interviews administrators who hold prestigious offices, notably presidents at Harvard University, Wesleyan College and Stanford University, as well as parents writing enormous tuition checks and students struggling to afford their education.

That said, viewers are indoctrinated to Rossi’s partisan, though insightful, viewpoint that the college system is at a critical tipping point. The film begins with Columbia American studies professor Andrew Delbanco warning of an apocalyptic tidal wave, then rattles off several facts to support this view: student loan debt is now more than $1 trillion, and since 1980, the price of college has risen 1,120 percent, more than price increases for any other good in the U.S. economy.

Like other David vs. Goliath documentaries such as “Super Size Me” (2004) and “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), “Ivory Tower” assaults an institution so isolated from attack and assured of its invincibility that it has become out of touch with the general public. The first U.S. institution of higher education, Harvard, was founded in 1636 with the goal of preparing students for the Protestant clergy. This is a far cry from Rossi’s presentation of today’s colleges: prestige-driven institutions willing to install plasma TVs and tanning beds in student centers in order to lure in new candidates, as opposed to focusing on smaller class sizes. One theorist in the film half-jokingly projects that this extravagance will soon spiral into absurdity — “Soon there’ll have to be a pool in every room.”

The film, however, does not find many promising alternatives. Rossi profiles avant-garde higher education institutions such as Deep Springs College, a two-year college, where the 26-person student body spends half its day ranching or farming and the other half studying. Though students do not pay tuition, many later pursue studies at Ivy League colleges or Stanford, and two-thirds pursue graduate studies, making Deep Springs hardly a bargain purchase or viable competitor to mainstream universities.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Rossi profiles the UnCollege movement as well. This movement, which includes glamorous college alternatives like the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program that provides students $100,000 to take time off from college and pursue an innovative idea, seemingly embodies Rossi’s thesis — that college education is too expensive and rigid and not the only path to a successful career. Rossi notes, however, how quixotic UnCollege becomes when statistically, college graduates’ lifetime earnings are double those of high school graduates — even anomalies like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg can’t slide the median earnings any closer together.

Rossi also profiles The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a radical New York engineering and arts college that had historically provided free tuition to all undergraduates. The film captures the school charging tuition for the first time in its 150-year history due to budget deficits, encapsulating the mismanagement and competitive expansion Rossi argues is plaguing colleges. A centerpiece to the film, Cooper Union’s story provides a frightening foreshadowing of what U.S. higher education’s future could hold.

Overall, Rossi dwells too long on student backlash to rising tuition costs and student debt and could have spent more time covering how massive open online courses are shaping the future of higher education. Though MOOCs failed their trial run at San Jose State University, Rossi seem to have preemptively concluded that they pose no threat to the brick-and-mortar model. This cursory presentation left me feeling fairly hopeless — if technology can’t help higher learning, what will? The film doesn’t provide an answer.

But that’s not what the film sets out to produce. The strength of “Ivory Tower” lies in its panoramic coverage of the U.S. higher education system’s degradation, not in being our Superman saving the day. In the post-film discussion, a few audience members complained about the film’s lack of resolution, to which Rossi sardonically apologized for not including “a nice Hollywood ending,” admitting that there is no panacea for this “multi-headed Hydra” of an issue.

Though it arguably spreads itself too thin trying to cover each angle of the problem, the film provides fodder for thoughtful debate and reflection on the topic. It is a must-see for students preparing to embark on a journey through colleges and universities, where their dreams, and bank loans, presumably take off.

Rating: 8.8/10

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