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UNC featured in education defunding documentary

The University will be featured as one of the institutions struggling with the market-oriented reformation of higher education.

The film features the conflict between the UNC-system Board of Governors and former UNC-system President Tom Ross, who was pressured to step down in 2015 and replaced by Margaret Spellings earlier this year.

Steve Mims, a filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, directed the film. He said he came up with the idea when he noticed how several states, including Texas, were defunding their public universities.

“(Defunding) is something that people really don’t know a lot about, and they need to know about it, because it’s an insidious problem,” he said.

According to the film, state funding for higher education has decreased dramatically since the 1980s, while at the same time tuition and fees paid by students at public universities has increased.

Mims said the film presents the conflict between two ideologies in public higher education.

The traditional ideology, he said, treats state universities as a public good. States invest resources into schools, and the return on those investments comes from the students, who can contribute to the development of the state.

Mims said the second ideology, which is more market-oriented, has gained prominence in recent years. This ideology presents higher education as a commodity, and students, as the beneficiaries, should be able to pay for their degrees with minimal government assistance.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy is advocating for the second type of higher education reform in North Carolina, said George Leef, the organization’s director of research.

“The heavy subsidization of public education has generally bad consequences,” he said. “(It) has increased the cost and at the same time decreased the validity of higher education.”

Leef said eliminating subsidies would cause less motivated students to pursue careers after high school rather than going to college.

“Partying and sports are more important to most of the students,” he said. “They are lured in, not because they want to study anything, but because it is relatively inexpensive and fun.”

Although Leef has yet to see “Starving the Beast,” he said the issues presented by the film are overwrought.

“This strikes me as liberal hysteria, that there’s some terrible conspiracy to defund public education,” he said. “It’s simply not true.”

North Carolina’s public universities remain committed to affordability, Joni Worthington, spokesperson for the UNC-system Board of Governors, said in an email.

Mims hopes “Starving the Beast” will present both sides of the argument for government involvement in higher education.

“The debate has happened off the radar, but it has profound implications for what’s happening now and what’s going to happen in the years to come for these public universities,” he said.

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