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Movie Review

Higher education under a microscope in ‘Ivory Tower’

Harvard (pictured) and Cooper Union (below) are prominently featured in Andrew Rossi’s “Ivory Tower.”Samuel Goldwyn Films

Is a college education worth it? Is the college model broken? Are online courses any good? Do state universities pimp their party reputations to attract out-of-state students? Are college presidents paid too much? Are adjunct professors paid too little? Can Cooper Union remain free?

These are just a few of the questions and topics raised in “Ivory Tower,” an earnest, articulate, and agenda-heavy documentary from CNN Films and writer-director Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”). They’re all worth discussing and with any luck the film will fire up conversations within academia and without. In trying to cover the waterfront, though, Rossi nearly drowns in a sea of data sets, talking heads, and avenues of inquiry. At times the movie feels less like a documentary and more like a syllabus.


Which is a shame, because the state of higher education in this country could use a good shake. “Ivory Tower” opens with freshmen streaming into Harvard Yard for their initiation into the mysteries of college life, and we learn that Harvard University, an outgrowth of the Puritan church with lectures patterned on sermons, created the DNA for higher education in America. But Rossi and his experts — chief among them Columbia professor and author Andrew Delbanco and Chronicle of Higher Education editor Jeff Selingo — point out that the mission to educate has become diluted by the race for prestige, with colleges and universities embarking on massive construction projects and filling dorms with plasma TVs and tanning beds.

The cost of college tuition, meanwhile, has risen roughly 1,100 percent since 1980 — more than any other goods or service in the US economy — while state spending on public higher education has plummeted. College administrations and their attendant salaries have ballooned compared to modest growth on the faculty side. We learn that the president of the University of Chicago makes $3.3 million and we meet Hunter College graduate Stefanie Gray, who has a master’s degree in geography, no job, and $140,000 in student debt. One expert sees a crash coming and worries that the cost of college will be so high “that people won’t want to pay for it anymore.”


What’s to be done? “Ivory Tower” examines some options without probing any of them deeply. Rossi spends time at alternative institutions like Deep Springs College, a two-year all-male school on a Death Valley ranch that prepares students for “lives of service to humanity,” and balances farm work with impassioned classroom discussions of Hegel. It’s a great idea and the young men are amazing to listen to — all 26 of them.

The film examines the rise of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — and carefully dissects the claims of people like Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, that online courses will change the face of education. Thrun’s software is rolled out at San Jose State University, and the results are disastrous, yet a more flexible meeting of standard teaching and technology seems to work at Bunker Hill Community College, which offers computer science lectures online (through edX, a joint MIT/Harvard project) but follows up with in-class work groups. “You can’t, at least right now, replace a person with an automaton,” someone says, and one hopes that future is still a long way off.

If “Ivory Tower” had examined the MOOC issue in more detail or offered a broader portrait of educational alternatives — a side-trip into the rather smug “Uncollege” movement feels like a waste of time — it might have taken us somewhere useful. But Rossi’s decision to dwell on the 2013 crisis at Cooper Union, in which the historically free college decided to charge tuition and students occupied the president’s office in protest, has little relevance, dramatic though it may be.


Same with the formerly homeless kid now attending Harvard on a full scholarship, or the interviews with party-hearty students at state schools, or the deleterious effect of student evaluations on the art of teaching — all interesting subjects that buzz around a central issue the filmmakers never fully grasp. (Forget about the parents who have to pay the bills, by the way; “Ivory Tower” talks to precisely one and gets little of substance.) Rossi gives us a survey course when what we need is a seminar; the movie is a useful “What’s Wrong With College 101” but the advanced study remains to be done.

The official trailer:

More coverage:

- 6/10: Student loan debate in D.C. spotlight

- Editorial: Elizabeth Warren’s student loan bill is worth talking about (6/10)

- 4/13: Elizabeth Warren decries US college loan profits

- 4/6: Wesleyan bucks trend, lets students graduate in 3 years

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.