The Missing "s" in Ivory Tower

Film review by Christopher M. Mullin  

AIR member Christopher M. Mullin reviewed the documentary Ivory Tower: Is College Worth the Cost?, which will be featured at the 2015 AIR Forum in Denver. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR.

ivory tower.jpgRecently I took the time to watch the documentary Ivory Tower: Is College Worth the Cost? (Andrew Rossi, 2014). My interest in education-related media stems in part from a) my professional need to be ready to respond to films, books, or studies on higher education issues should the need to be “in the know” elevate to a point of action, and b) conversations that frequently emerge with my brother, Sean, who works in the film industry and has been a long-time collaborator with the director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Murderball, Henry-Alex Rubin.

I admit that I begrudgingly set aside time to watch Ivory Tower, readying myself for a barrage of rhetorical questions on the value of higher education with valid arguments being made on both sides from the likes of Richard Vedder, Anthony Carnevale, Peter Capelli, and Andrew Delbanco. Further, I prepared myself for a documentary that came with a particular angle or bias. While Carnevale and Delbanco—understandably—informed the film, much to my surprise, and delight, I found neither a circular debate nor a biased film.

As the movie opened, I repeatedly twitched involuntarily at the statements being made and the data, or lack thereof, informing the perspectives being shared. On multiple occasions I wanted to pull out my computer and start crunching the data to check what was being said. Rather than doing so, I gave the film leeway as I understand that some type of conflict has to be created to drive the film’s narrative.

Yet at the end of the introduction, the problem featured in the film remained unclear. I paused the movie, reflected on what I had heard, reviewed the notes I took, and wished—as I often do when reading studies about higher education—that the problem was clearly defined. Cost to whom? Value for whom? What do they mean by “college?” 

Over the next 75 minutes, Ivory Tower tread ground on familiar topics such as the rise and fall of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) at San Jose State University, disproportionate praise for Harvard University and all of its glory, the growth of facilities, and the parties at Arizona State University (examined previously in John Merrow’s film Declining by Degrees). Ivory Tower also focused on schools at which student learning is the primary focus, such as Deep Springs College and Bunker Hill Community College. I thought the central actor(s) in this movie were the students and institution of Cooper Union in New York. The film shared the story of an administrative decision to construct a new building, and the resulting debt, which put the institution’s historic mission of providing free education at risk. Cooper Union students took action, and their story serves as an example of how strategic institutional decisions are hard to change once made.

In the end I found myself very much agreeing with USA Today film critic Claudia Puig who surmised that Ivory Tower “sometimes can feel like a survey course in The Current State of Colleges, rather than an in-depth analysis” (June 13, 2014). I would amend her comment to insert “some“ colleges.

If asked to provide a response to the film I, like you, would have pulled out my computer and checked the stats that were displayed, indicating how more often than not the anecdote portrayed in film is not the reality for most. (See, for example, Chingos and Ayers’ work on student debt, or work I recently completed with Smith regarding whether or not colleges in America have fallen from grace.)

Alas, I have not yet been called on to provide a professional critique of the film or the data it features. Until that time, I choose to see this film for what it is—a survey of various institutions and approaches to learning—and I longingly hope that the next documentary on higher education can pick up where this left off: addressing the universal lack of awareness of the unique nature and structure of higher education in America that allows students to approach college from whichever ways they deem most appropriate, be it an open-access community college, an “elite” institution like Harvard, a large university like Arizona State where the ability to self-monitor one’s every decision is as important as what one learns in class, or a purpose-driven school like Deep Springs.

My interactions with higher-education leaders from other countries, such as Australia, Belgium, Germany, and India, who laud the various on-ramps to further education available in America see this “value.” I know that one day we, too, will see the value of all our Ivory Towers.

Relevant links:

Dr. Christopher M. Mullin serves as the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Policy and Research at the State University System of Florida, Board of Governors. The views expressed in this review are his own and do not, in any way, reflect the viewpoints or opinions of any member or affiliate of the Board of Governors or the Association for Institutional Research. Chris served as past Coordinating Editor of AIR Professional Files and is co-author of Higher Education Finance Research: Policy, Politics, and Practice (Information Age Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Community College Finance: A Guide for Institutional Leaders (Wiley, 2015).

 

 

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Total Comments: 4
 
David posted on 11/14/2014 10:51 AM
Thank you Christopher, both for your comments and the related links.

I hope you do not wait too long be called on to provide your critique: It is high time that someone from the IR profession prominently contributes to this national discussion. (Particularly if Higher Ed policy is a possible battlefield between the Democratic White House and Republican Congress in the run up to 2016's elections.)

Sometimes, we in IR need to go out on a limb and do an analysis or report that no one is yet asking for. Or maybe, even, someone in our area -- skilled at defining a question and simplifying data to communicate an answer -- should start working on a documentary of our own.
Ishuan posted on 11/14/2014 2:21 PM
I found the review informative, as I also loath watching biased films on important topics such as college students loan debt. I would like to know Dr. Mullin's take as an IR professional of what IR can contribute to this debate.
Chris posted on 11/14/2014 3:57 PM
David, I agree with the points you made, especially the point about conducting research. Oftentimes this requires using data and time outside of work.

Ishuan, one place to start is by using the range (restricted, interquartile or other) when displaying data. The conversations about distributions often are different than those based on a mean or median. From a broader perspective there are ways to better connect research to policy - the topic of my forum session last year.

Thank you both for taking the time to read the review and provide feedback.

All the best,
Chris
Chris posted on 11/14/2014 4:23 PM
David, I agree with the points you made, especially the point about conducting research. Oftentimes this requires using data and time outside of work.

Ishuan, one place to start is by using the range (restricted, interquartile or other) when displaying data. The conversations about distributions often are different than those based on a mean or median. From a broader perspective there are ways to better connect research to policy - the topic of my forum session last year.

Thank you both for taking the time to read the review and provide feedback.

All the best,
Chris