Ivory Tower is a policy wonk's happy hunting ground. Andrew Rossi's provocative, issue-studded documentary takes a long, hard look at higher education — one our fractious society's thorniest public-affairs arenas — and comes away with ten times more questions than answers. As it should.
Is college worth the cost? Is it only for those who can pay the increasingly higher tuition, or for everyone? Is public education viable in the 21st century? When did education change from being viewed as a public good to being seen as a private good? What, exactly, does a college education provide? Why are so many colleges behaving like aggressive corporations? Why are so many colleges in debt? What will be the ultimate social cost of the crushingly high levels of student loan debt? Is the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) approach as wonderful as its proponents think it is? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and became a world-famous billionaire — could others do the same? And by the way, what's with all the rock-climbing walls on campuses?
None of these questions has a short, easy answer, except maybe the one about the rock-climbing walls (they're put in to attract customers, aka students, willing to pay luxury-rate tuitions). Writer-director Rossi, who examined the daily newspaper business in Page One: Inside the New York Times, admirably keeps the higher education discussion as wide as possible. Shepherded by the film's philosophizing guide, Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco, we visit a healthy number of different kinds of schools and listen mostly to what students — as opposed to teachers and administrators — have to say.
The "pursuit of prestige" has reached epidemic levels among some institutions. At number-one name brand Harvard, Zuckerberg's success has made CS50, a computer science course, the most popular offering on the Yard, even though after-hours tutorials are reportedly crammed with kids who can't quite grasp it. Stanford, understandably, bought into high technology wholesale with the MOOC concept and support for such online-ed startups as Udacity as an affordable alternative to the four-year campus-based model — but teachers everywhere rebelled against being obviated, and besides, students simply weren't learning the material. Not everyone is a genius, even at Stanford and Harvard. As Delbanco notes: "The diversity of America's college students is mind-boggling."
Once we get past the heavily promoted diploma mills we discover that for many low-income students, a college degree is still what it always has been — a pathway to the middle class, an avenue for social mobility. At places like the rigorously academic Deep Springs College in Big Pine, California and Atlanta's Spelman College for African-American women, the classroom is a mirror of the outside world, and education is the ultimate key to the common good. Ivory Tower devotes its longest segment to New York City's venerable Cooper Union, where a 150-year commitment to free university education underwent an upheaval in 2011 with the announcement that the school was to begin charging tuition. Student protestors, including activist Victoria Sobel (whom we meet), occupied the president's office for 65 days, but in the end, Cooper Union began charging for what it had always awarded gratis to qualified students.
"Growth at all cost" and the commodification of knowledge are two of the chief demons at work in higher education today, the film suggests. (Cooper Union lost a fortune in the hedge fund market in the Great Recession.) We can blame Ronald "The Great Communicator" Reagan, a graduate of Eureka College in Illinois, for encouraging the notion that public money should not be spent on what he and fellow conservatives like to see as a private responsibility. Predictably, as state funding for university education has gone down, tuitions have gone up — hence student loans, now totaling well over $1 trillion.
Frederick Wiseman's 2013 documentary At Berkeley raises some of the same questions — in a subtle, didactic, montage-driven way — as Ivory Tower. But for those who believe that critical thinking is the most important dividend that universal higher education can pay back to a democracy, the observations of Sobel and Delbanco ring loudest. The latter thinks that one of a college's chief duties is "to preserve cultural memory" and thus, in effect, to "cheat death." Filmmaker Rossi and CNN, producers of the film with help from Participant Media and Samuel Goldwyn Films, get it completely. The administrations of Stanford, Harvard, and Arizona State may or may not. But with any luck they'll learn.