Graduation day in Ivory Tower (Samuel Goldwyn Films/Participant Media)

Graduation day in Ivory Tower (Samuel Goldwyn Films/Participant Media)

Written & Directed by Andrew Rossi
Produced by Josh Braun & Rossi
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films/Participant Media
USA. 90 min. Rated PG-13

There are few things more enjoyable than to critique the American higher education system, and Ivory Tower is one of the most slickly produced and entertaining cracks at it yet. Here, colleges are widely described as vast refuges for bros to sickeningly bro-out with their bros, for sorority girls to trade vapid neologisms, and where the facilitators of these incubators of stagnation get filthy rich all the while. Yuck!

Ivory Tower is at its best when it really tears into the greed, waste, and intellectual bankruptcy these factories trade in, but it also spends roughly half of its running time highlighting fascinating alternative approaches to the traditional four-year college degree. It takes the idea of constructive criticism seriously, and is mature enough to show the audience that there are workable, vibrant alternatives to the system that dominates. Rather than just excoriating the system, it shows how small segments of society have organized innovative and promising alternatives, but the most engaging parts are probably the righteous lambasting of the pervasive decadence.

The main idea guiding the criticism of the American university system is how students are increasingly viewed as customers, rather than learners. Since the customer is always right, students are catered in ways that would have been unthinkable to the more serious scholars of decades past, and wooed with superficial attractions. There is a kind of arms race going on between schools, as one institution’s multimillion-dollar student center/entertainment complex puts pressure on another to dump tens of millions into a luxury living resort center. Of course, to accomplish this, corners must be cut, and so adjuncts, part-time, lowly paid lecturers without benefits, job security, or offices have become more widely used than ever before.

There are plenty of smaller scale attempts at shaking things up, and the film offers deep looks at their successes. The most radical and inspiring of them is Deep Springs College in California, an institution with a simple set of ideals that it wholeheartedly sticks to: academics, labor, and self-governance. Time is divided evenly between these three things. Deep Springs, by design, is very small scale, with a student body of about 30, since anything too much beyond that would make real self-governance unwieldy. But it is an example of what college should be—radical experiments in intellectual stimulation, challenges to preconceived notions of how society should operate, and a serious attempt at taking responsibility for one’s place in the world.

A good chunk of the film chronicles in detail the 2012 Cooper Union protests, when the 150-year-old institution announced it would begin charging tuition for the first time in its history. Cooper Union was founded by industrialist Peter Cooper as a place where quality higher education in art, architecture, and engineering would be provided free of charge. The school, in the East Village of New York City, had been operating at a massive deficit for many years, and when the school’s president announced they needed tuition money to stay operational, the student body went into upheaval.

It was an admirable defense of the principles of education as a right, not a privilege, and they managed, through a week-long sit-in in the president’s office. The tactic worked temporarily, but Cooper announced that incoming students in fall 2014 would have to pay tuition. Still, it was a provocative look at the death throes of a surprisingly successful and durable radical model of free education. In the climate where some schools charge $60,000 per year for tuition, such a notion became unworkable.

The film concludes with a look at PayPal CEO Peter Thiel’s fellowship for students to forgo college entirely and instead begin their own businesses. Thiel offers $100,000 to lucky young people who display some aptitude or plan to go right into successful entrepreneurship, and for whom college would be at best a waste of time and at worst an incursion of crippling, lifelong debt.

Thiel admits that this is not a workable solution to the problem of higher education for everyone, but it is an example of thinking outside the box. The lesson of the film is that things can’t keep going the way in the same direction. If we’re serious about creating responsible, effective citizens, we have to start trying different ideas.