Two Austin Filmmakers Reveal a Shocking Shift in Public Funding for Higher Education
Meet the filmmakers shedding light on a public-funding power struggle
Spotlight: Steve Mims & Bill Banowsky
A CONTROVERSIAL NEW APPROACH to funding higher education has taken root across America, and some of its most potent seeds were sown here in Austin. Starting with local headlines and digging deeper, two Austin film notables — one a writer/director, the other a producer/cinema owner — uncovered a national phenomenon. Their startling findings can be seen this fall when “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities” is set for wide release (after premiering at SXSW this spring).
The documentary’s writer/director is Steve Mims, an award-winning Austin filmmaker and adjunct lecturer in the department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas. His 2011 documentary, co-directed with Joe Bailey, Jr., “Incendiary: The Willingham Case,” was hailed by The Washington Post as “nonfiction filmmaking at its most classic.” “Starving the Beast” producer Bill Banowsky is the founder of Violet Crown Cinema. Previously, Banowsky founded Magnolia Pictures (later sold to Mark Cuban) and served as CEO of Landmark Theatres.
While “Incendiary” asks agonizing questions about the death penalty, Mims’ and Banowsky’s new documentary examines a fraught power struggle over publicly-funded higher education.
What motivated you to make a film about a topic so complex and not necessarily on everyone’s radar?
Mims: This ongoing debate may be top-of-mind for only a few, but the consequences have the potential to affect many, and for years to come. Really, it started because Bill and I would talk about the news and what was happening at the State Capitol with proposed reforms at Texas A&M and UT. The contemporary story people hear is about student debt, but if you back up, you see a bigger story. Over 35 years, state funding for higher education has dropped from about 60 percent in 1980 to about 12 percent today. It’s reached a tipping point. When we started researching the changes being enacted in Texas and who was behind them, we realized that Texas wasn’t unique — the same thing was happening in Virginia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina and moving into other states, too. We found the same basic philosophical shift and even the same cast of characters behind it.
In a CliffsNotes version, what’s the source of all the controversy?
Banowsky: At the heart is a new approach to funding public universities, one that’s based on the concept of “disruptive innovation.” It’s an idea commonplace in Silicon Valley and favored by free-market think tanks and government reformers. Basically, they look at public universities like businesses, students like customers and a degree like a product. That’s how they want states to look it, too, which is a far cry from the way public universities were first envisioned — as integral to the greater good of the country.
How do you craft a documentary that will grab viewers in an era of Hollywood blockbusters?
Mims: I’m definitely aware of how hard it can be to generate interest in documentaries. This isn’t exactly the feel-good movie of the year. But you present facts that are surprising, sometimes shocking, you get great interviews, and people will be interested. You also have to maintain a sense of humor.
Banowsky: As a distributor and cinema operator I can tell you just getting people off the couch to come see any movie can be a challenge. The truth of the matter is this power struggle will affect everyone because it’s a radical move away from seeing accessible, first-class public higher education as fundamental. For well over 100 years, public funding to state schools has been viewed as one of the most valuable investments a state can make in its people and its future. The market-oriented think tanks who see students as “customers” simply look at the “market value” of a degree as it relates to existing jobs in the economy. Teaching and research would be separated, meaning research dollars would move from the public sector — where everyone benefits — over to the private sector. And the cost of a degree would be borne almost solely by the student “customer.” That creates a huge accessibility problem. This may be the scariest part. Public universities exist to educate the masses, not the few. The wealthy will always be able to afford an elite level of higher ed at private universities. But finding the next great public leaders from the other side of the tracks? That’ll be very unlikely if this trend of defunding state universities continues.
Mims: It really goes back to Jefferson, to Lincoln and the ideal of what America stands for. I think most people care about that. The footage of James Carville speaking at LSU’s 2015 commencement spells out the historical aspect of the debate pretty clearly.
Speaking of James Carville, the film has interviews with people at the highest level on both sides of the argument, including former UT President Bill Powers and UT Regent Wallace Hall, whose names were most frequently in the headlines. How’d you achieve that balance and get them all to speak with you?
Mims: This is not a black and white issue. What’s going on is a big, complicated story that hasn’t been told like this, with so many dots connected. We spoke with brilliant people on both sides in order to present a balanced look. They’re all passionate about what they believe and they want people to be aware of their views. We went to great pains to let each one know that what they said would be complete and not taken out of context. Our goal was to present interviews showing a wide range of opinions and let people come to their own conclusions.
The film is set for release in select markets across the country (including Austin) after Labor Day, but you’ve screened it at six university campuses already. How has it been received so far?
Banowsky: The response has been great. It’s generated a lot of discussion, not just among faculty and students. Alumni have very strong feelings about what happens at their universities, as do the communities around the schools. Since the initial screenings, about 200 universities have contacted us about bringing the film to their area.
Mims: I think the response has been so positive because the topic is relevant to current events, to things people are talking about today like the role of government in education. I also think it speaks to people at an unconscious level in terms of what a fundamental change like this can mean. Just like university budgets, state budgets across the country are very uncertain and the stakes are high. This is a story that’s definitely not finished and no one really knows how it’ll end.
With this film in the can, what’s your next project?
Mims: After logging over three and a half years on this project, we’re considering new projects the way an old married couple considers another child — with equal amounts affection and trepidation.
Banowsky: That is to say … of course we’re working on something.