Everyone’s aware of the crisis in American public education at the elementary and secondary levels. But the systemic problems involving colleges and universities, both public and private, haven’t gotten nearly as much attention, though they’re just as real. The treatment that Andrew Rossi gives the issue in this documentary is rather scattershot, but even if some of the targets get only glancing blows and others are ignored almost entirely, “Ivory Tower” provides lots of food for thought.
Rossi begins with a joyful scene—the welcoming of the incoming freshman class at Harvard in 2012. The school is presented as the apex of undergraduate education in the country, a highly selective (and exceedingly well-endowed) institution that also has a sense of obligation to the community. (The film will go on to feature a once-homeless Cleveland teen named Daniel Boone, who was not only accepted at Harvard but given a full scholarship there.) Rossi then contrasts Arizona State University, which has the reputation as the best party school in the country, and despite protests at that characterization from administrators, shows footage from a huge pool party that suggests the reputation is well deserved. He’ll also profile a couple of schools very different from those two: Deep Springs College in California, which offers a free, intensive two-year work-study program to a small group of male students, and Spelman College, a historically African-American women’s college in Atlanta.
In the course of examining the issues raised by this institutional foursome—as well as others mentioned more fleetingly (like the landmark University of California system)—“Ivory Tower” confronts what is in fact its major concern: the incredibly escalating costs of higher education, situated within the broader historical context from the founding of Harvard through the creation of nineteenth-century land-grant colleges and the post-World War II G.I. bill. Various elements are considered as contributing factors to the rising tuition costs that result in staggering student-loan debt. A major one—seen clearly in the California example—is shrinking governmental support. (This is a topic treated far more expansively in Frederick Wiseman’s recent documentary “At Berkeley.”) Others include the financial hole that colleges have dug for themselves by engaging in risky investments while mindlessly enhancing their student amenities at enormous cost, and the astronomical increase in the size of institutional administration, coupled with obscenely high salaries for managers in what are increasingly being seen as businesses, rather than educational establishments, by both their staffs and their “customers.”
The practical difficulty is encapsulated in the lengthy attention Rossi gives to recent events at Cooper Union in New York City, whose president inaugurated a period of dissent and demonstration in 2011 by announcing his intention to initiate tuition at the traditionally free establishment. Protests resulted in the student occupation of the presidential suite—an episode that the film treats at length, indicating Rossi’s sympathy for the kinds of student activism that marked campuses during the volatile 1960s, as opposed to the relative passivity that appears to mark most student bodies nowadays. There’s more than a hint of nostalgia for a bygone era here.
Toward the close, Rossi turns to alternatives to the traditional college experience that have emerged in recent years. One is the so-called UnCollege movement, which encourages young people to drop out of college or not go at all, using their computer hacking skills essentially to acquire the education they choose. Another is the drive to establish a massive online university system, which could help contain costs to students but as yet has proven to have mixed outcomes.
There are issues to which “Ivory College” gives relatively short shrift. One is the emphasis of much full-time faculty at major institutions on research rather than teaching, leaving classes in the hands of an increasingly large adjunct faculty composed of instructors who are woefully underpaid and without benefits. Another is the content of courses, which is often simplified to appeal to the ill-prepared or unmotivated students whom colleges have to enroll to fill seats (and to insure high ratings from students who are invited to assess their courses, and often do so on the basis of ease). That, of course, takes one into the issue of high-school education properly preparing students for college—something that is outside the scope of this film but inextricably connected to the issues it raises.
But to ask a single documentary to address all the matters related to such a broad cultural phenomenon as contemporary higher education, or even to treat the ones it focuses upon thoroughly, is unrealistic. The smoothly-edited “Ivory Tower” at least touches upon most of the major points in a fashion that should encourage reflection and debate, and offers commentary from a wide variety of voices—those of teachers, administrators, parents, students and politicians—in doing so. It thus invites viewers to engage in the sort of critical thought on the subject that colleges ideally exist to foster in those who attend them.