The documentary Ivory Tower may spark more debate over higher ed’s big problems

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi is fascinated by creative destruction—a concept that sheds light on how new and innovative technology can disrupt and even topple an entire industry (e.g., Ford’s Model T vs. horse-and-buggy manufacturers).

In 2011, he gained acclaim with the release of Page One: Inside the New York Times, a documentary that focused on how the Digital Age and Internet media have affected the once-unshakeable business model of the nation’s “paper of record.”

With his latest effort, Ivory Tower, Rossi presents a portrait of the financial and existential problems facing public higher education. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and rapidly gained national attention via high-profile reviews in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Business Week, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

Higher education officials and academics are taking note of Rossi’s film, too. In late July, the film was screened by the University of North Carolina System’s Board of Governors during a policy meeting which I attended. Later this month, the National Association of Scholars is screening the film in New York.

The poster for the documentary asks, “Is college worth the cost?” The film never explicitly answers that question, but the answer can be found between the lines.

Ivory Tower’s main message is that the fundamental goals of education—endowing young people with critical thinking skills, a love of learning, and the ability to be productive members of society—could be achieved affordably if it weren’t for declines in state funding and creeping “corporatization.”

Under the misnomer “corporatization,” the film places phenomena such as extravagant spending on campus facilities, profligate president salaries, increasing reliance on adjunct professors, and university officials’ perception that students are customers to be appeased at all costs.

The film suggests that many of those problems could be solved if only there were a return to the “Golden Age” of government subsidization. It goes into detail about the Morrill Act, which established land-grant universities and led to state university systems, the G.I. Bill, and the Higher Education Act.

My biggest beef with Ivory Tower is what’s not included in it: a deep conversation with serious higher education critics about the connection between third-party tuition subsidization and rising tuition prices. Instead, viewers are presented with an incoherent jumble of seemingly unrelated problems and hear from a number of university officials toeing the party line on government support. Cause-and-effect analysis is entirely absent in this film.

Another problem is that the film goes into unnecessary detail about Cooper Union, a privately funded university in Manhattan that for more than 150 years provided free tuition. When financial panic hit in 2011, campus officials for the first time considered charging tuition. Rossi interviews the students who staged a 65-day “sit-in” to protest the potential charges (which are now in place—students must pay to attend). Here, imagine Occupy Wall Street protesters and you will have an accurate picture of the student protesters.

While the Cooper Union story is interesting and probably merits a standalone documentary, it has little relevance to the woes of public higher education.

Nevertheless, Rossi did attempt to be even-handed and comprehensive. He interviewed a wide range of commentators, bringing attention to some ideas that are difficult for members of the higher education establishment to digest.

For instance, Rossi sits down with Peter Schiff, a free-market financial analyst who compares higher education to the pre-2008 housing market, as well as entrepreneur Peter Thiel, whose unique fellowship pays select college students $100,000 to drop-out and create start-up companies. “Going to college has been a way to avoid thinking about the future. I think it’s very important to [ask], if you didn’t go to college, what would you do instead?” asks Thiel.

Thiel recognizes that for at least some top students, going through college is mostly a matter of spinning their wheels. They could be learning things elsewhere.

Another critic Rossi includes is Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and “disruptive innovation” theoretician. Christensen says that Harvard’s educational model—which has roots in the Puritan church and whose lecture format is based on religious sermons—is “the source of DNA for almost all of higher ed.”

Christensen argues that we have suffered a gradual degradation of that valuable DNA because of a “pursuit of prestige” in which a large number of universities feel pressure to build fancy dorms, research labs, libraries, and recreation facilities. Colleges are no longer competing along educational lines, they’re competing for what seems like an endless supply of students with access to loans or their parents’ savings.

Consequently, Christensen believes, higher education is ripe for innovations that will lower costs while raising quality.

The voices receiving the most attention, however, come from individuals such as Columbia professor/author Andrew Delbanco. Delbanco, whom Rossi calls the “moral voice” of the film, repeatedly invokes higher education’s “higher purpose,” and laments what he views as dwindling public support for and appreciation of colleges and universities.

And toward the end of the movie, we see footage of Senator Elizabeth Warren demagoguing about rising student debt, and viewers are urged to visit That website encourages visitors to “take action” and “support student loan refinancing legislation” by signing an online petition. By endorsing that position, the film badly undermines its claim to objectivity.

Ivory Tower is at its best when it’s painting the collegiate landscape, not when it’s theorizing or moralizing. In the best “warts and all” spirit, the film does a good job of illuminating some of higher education’s more alarming statistics.

We learn, for example, that tuition has increased by approximately 1,100 percent since 1980—more than any other good or service, that total student debt has passed the trillion-dollar mark, and that half of recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed.

We also learn that many university presidents and administrators are earning huge salaries while the number of full-time faculty is in steep decline, that nearly 50 percent of students fail to graduate in six years, and students are studying and writing less as educational quality and rigor have diminished.

The film then flashes to hedonistic scenes at Arizona State University, consistently ranked as a top “party school” by publications such as Playboy magazine. We see lavish pool parties, a student chugging hard liquor straight from the bottle, and hundreds of students drunkenly cheering on a fist fight.

Regarding the “party school” atmosphere, Rossi interviews Professor Elizabeth Armstrong, co-author of the book Paying for the Party. Armstrong says that “the fact that some college-aged kids are having some fun [is] not the problem, but [rather] that institutions are creating party pathways and taking their money, but just [giving] them beer and circuses.”

The implicit message is that there is good reason for dwindling public support and appreciation for our universities; they have become interested in providing student comforts and entertainment rather than being places of serious learning.

Ivory Tower explores alternatives to the current collegiate paradigm. It shows the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and interviews key individuals involved in their growth, although the presentation here was not objective and even-handed. It also shows more unconventional developments, such as the UnCollege Gap Year Program and a Silicon Valley-based “education hackerhouse,” where young computer wizards go in lieu of college to create new software and cell phone apps.

All in all, Ivory Tower is a well-produced film. Unfortunately, perhaps because of its 90 minute time-span, it gives some important issues short shrift.

In its ambition to cover everything, Ivory Tower comes up short.

Still, I give it a B+ because it is a good starting point for a deep conversation about higher education’s big problems.

[Editor’s note: Ivory Tower will be available on iTunes on September 16, and on DVD on September 30.]