Documenting the Power Struggle on College Campuses

Director Steve Mims discusses the making of Starving the Beast
By Steve Mims

Easily the best part of working on any film is that is thrusts you out into a world populated with potentially fascinating people. Documentary and fiction projects put you into proximity with people you otherwise would have never met, and sometimes in the company of experts in their respective fields. When Joe Bailey, Jr. and I made Incendiary: The Willingham Case, we got to spend an afternoon with fire scientist Gerald Hurst, a brilliant, personable, and opinionated expert in arson evidence and every imaginable explosive device.  We realized at the time that we were in the presence of a kind of genius. In our film he emerged not only as an impeccable expert, but a voice of wisdom that added a surprising, profound dimension to the film.

On the documentary film Starving the Beast (The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities), producer Bill Banowsky and I got to hang out with and pick the brains of brilliant people well above our intellectual pay-grade: nationally recognized political strategists and academic experts who left us in a real sense of awe.  Among those were the University of Virginia’s brilliant media expert Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s poverty center director and activist Gene Nichol, and political strategist and wit James Carville. We would have never met them without the effort to make the film. Their contributions to the film are absolutely vital, but our opportunity to spend to time with them and get to know them was an equally profound personal reward.

When you consider the topic of the film, a recounting of a 35-year process of gradual defunding of public higher education and a contemporary radical reform movement, it only makes sense that we’d be working with experts in areas considered arcane and complex. In addition, these areas require an extensive background in order to be considered authentic sources within a film that amounts to a feature length public policy documentary.

As director and editor, this film was the most difficult puzzle I’ve ever tackled.  It is a film that evolved over time as we did research and interviews, following leads pointed out to us by our subjects and provocative material we turned up online. What started as a Texas-centric documentary sprawled into a vast national story with roots in tax reform efforts of the 1980’s and a network of market-oriented conservative think tanks.

Our original story focused on the unusual academic battle that pitted Texas’ flagship research universities (Texas A&M and UT Austin) against Governor Rick Perry.  His fast-track drive to reform those schools through appointments of regents, each with a mission to re-write fundamental rules and reform core concepts that have governed academia for decades, lead to revolts within those schools.  Resistance to these proposals resulted in campus protests, the removal of university officials at Texas A&M, the attempted removal of UT president Bill Powers and impeachment hearings for UT Austin Regent Wallace Hall.  It was an unusually public fight for academia, and it convinced us that there was a film there.  But we gradually realized the story was much bigger.

Research revealed that the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), the influential think tank, and Empower Texans, a political action committee, were deeply involved in advocating for these reforms and for several key individuals involved in the fight. TPPF is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN) a national non-profit network that advocates conservative policies.  SPN turned out to be involved in a national movement that mirrored the issues at the core of the UT/Texas A&M conflict.

UT general revenue from the state has declined from 47% in 1985 to 13% in 2013. Graphic by University Marketing and Creative Services.
UT general revenue from the state has declined from 47% in 1985 to 13% in 2013. Graphic by University Marketing and Creative Services.

Then our sources pointed us to similar on-going conflicts at universities across the nation.  These cases involved some of the same characters who had emerged in Texas, including conservative think tank funded experts and nationally known anti-tax advocates (including Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist). Our film also eventually documents stories from the University of Virginia, Louisiana State University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina and Iowa State University.

Since the film came out we’ve been contacted by universities from across the country who are experiencing the same potentially existential fights. Starving the Beast does what we think documentaries should do:  expose viewers to a world that’s more complex and nuanced than they had supposed, one that is populated with people who are more insightful and fascinating than they could have imagined, and one that delivers a story that surprises, educates and inflames.

I hope to meet you at the screening.  In the end you’ll not only understand one of the most important and little known battles in public higher education, but you’ll get the chance, via the film, to hang out with some of the best minds in the country.

The Humanities Institute, in partnership with the Austin Public Library, will be screening the award-winning Starving the Beast about the power struggle on college campuses over the future of higher education on March 2, 2017 at 7pm at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. Director Steve Mims will be present for a brief discussion and Q&A following the film. This event is free and open to the public.

Director Steve Mims
Director Steve Mims

Steve Mims is a writer, director, cinematographer and lecturer in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin.


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