College, in the past decade, has nearly completed the transformation from gateway to higher learning to a locus of high anxiety—and not just for students and their families or for teachers and alumni, but also for Michelle and Barack and the nation as a whole as student debt rises and public anger grows. As he did with Page One: Inside the New York Times, director Andrew Rossi visits an institution in crisis at a moment of particular disruption with a balanced, eyes-open approach and ponders any small shards of hope he can find amidst the wreckage. In the case of Ivory Tower, the devastation of the “college” experience has been brought about by a perfect storm. Institutions are engaged in a “building” war to better market themselves while charging increasing tuition to pay for the expansion while students are making up the difference with increasingly less forgiving loans. Traveling from New York to Massachusetts from Death Valley to Silicon Valley, Rossi finds hope not so much in easy technological solutions but rather in student uprisings, institutional re-thinking, unique approaches and stubbornly thoughtful citizens, entrepreneurs, youngsters and professors who refuse to pipe down or accept the status quo.
I got the chance to speak with Rossi for a few minutes this past month.
Keyframe: I found so many parallels between Page One, the story of the New York Times in either demise or transformation, depending on how you look at it, and Ivory Tower, the story of college education in either demise or transformation, depending on how you look at it.
Andrew Rossi: I try in the film to capture both the positive history of higher education and then the troubling contemporary problems that have caused us to get to where we are today with higher education. The film wants to remain objective while at the same time giving life to some of the outrage that students and faculty have about he high cost of tuition and the growth of student loan debt.
Keyframe: You don’t take it for granted that a college education is actually a necessity in this film, which is refreshing. I thought it was interesting in the bios of your filmmaking team in the press kit that you see the diversity of approaches to gaining an education, bridging the period from adolescence to adulthood.
Rossi: My fellow producer Josh Braun came to New York City when he was still a teenager to try and start a rock band and went through many different artistic careers before he became a sales agent in film. And I think at this point in his career, he is very successful and settled in a financially stable place. I think there’s an assumption that he would have gone to college because that’s what you would need to do in order to become a [sales] executive. On the other hand there are other people in the film who worked on the film who went to great research universities like Johns Hopkins or Harvard. Another didn’t go to college at all, or had a couple of semesters at a community college. The range of experience for those who worked on the film says a lot about how many different forms of preparation that there can be for a successful life.
Keyframe: Technology figures so prominently in the film. You aren’t afraid to criticize its place, however, and as with Page One, you have a fairly open-minded approach to the possibilities.
Rossi: When we started to make the film in 2012 it was the ‘Year of the MOOC [Massive Open Online Course]’ and so we felt/thought that the MOOC would be an even bigger part of the conversation about the future of higher education; certainly it’s still one of the key drivers for the future in terms of allocation of resources and hopes and dreams. But the results of the San Jose State University pilot really put the breaks on that train. We felt that we wanted to explore the origins of that movement and all of the potential for success but then be very realistic and sober about what the results are, particularly when MOOCs are delivered with no in-class instruction and exclusively online. Because when we look at the hybrid classroom or ‘flip’ classroom, when they watch the videos at home and come into the class for help and instruction the results are better. We felt it was important to address the phenomenon of MOOCs and address the human role for the instructor even in that technological future….
Keyframe: With Page One, we saw the New York Times doing its best to transition to that technological future.
Rossi: The paywall at the New York Times has been remarkably successful. I don’t know what the precise numbers are right now… but they have had so many people sign up to get access online. Those people are willing to pay for it. Traditional customers who are willing to get a subscription stay with the paper for their whole lives; they become lifelong subscribers. For the Times to be able to shift those subscribers to digital is a remarkable success. The journalism continues to be some of the best in the world. Even though new business models are emerging, they seem to be doing pretty well….
Keyframe: One specific from the film that may come as a surprise to some: It’s the new building boom on campuses—an arms race to keep up and build bigger, more state-of-the-art facilities—that is a major factor in escalating tuition.
Rossi: Anecdotally we heard about ambitious building projects on different campuses. What Ivory Tower tries to do is to show how many of those initiatives to build new dorms or research labs and stadiums and other facilities are the symptoms of a bigger cost disease.
Clayton Christensen describes that this effort to constantly build bigger and better is embedded in the DNA of higher education and results in an unsustainable financial model when practiced by institutions that do not have an endowment to pay for all these facilities and instead have to transfer the bill to the students….
Keyframe: As with traditionally tuition-free Cooper Union in New York, which you cover….
Rossi: The decision made by the Cooper Union board of directors is part of a set of financial mismanagement decisions and the students and faculty and alumni are part of an organization (‘Free Cooper Union’) that is now suing the school to get some sort of relief.
Keyframe: I was very inspired by that—to see Victoria Sobel and the other students protesting at Cooper union trying to seize control over their fates. Perhaps the lesson that universities can teach best at this stage is how to fight for oneself!
Rossi: The lines in the film from Peter Thiel saying that we used to think kids who couldn’t get into college were the victims; now we see those who do as the victims….It’s a pivotal point in the film, seeing the students marching up the steps to the President’s office, not allowing themselves to be just victims, seizing control over their fate and taking action.
Keyframe: Taken together, this film, along with Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven and Page One, point toward the death of a variety of our basic institutions, and offer a meditation on change in some of the basic modes through which we create and share our cultural and intellectual life—dining, learning, reading.
Rossi: Yes, I agree. The way I think of it is disruption. Culture is at a crossroads and we need to find a hybrid future. It’s about the death of certain cultural institution. There’s a great line in the beginning of the film: Andy Delbanco, as he’s walking onto campus, as a sort of professor who’s been there before, has a sense of melancholy, because the students remain the same age year after year while he gets older. There is a sense of existential crisis among some members of faculty that was partly piqued with the fear that MOOCs in one version of the future could replace professors entirely. But even beyond the issues of technology, the role of the professors is as Delbanco says, rife with feelings of mortality. He says also that the attempt to educate young people is an attempt to stave off mortality… So yeah, I think that’s the core of so many film ideas that I’m drawn to.