In the world of filmmaking the best documentaries that tackle social or cultural issues feature two things: heated debate on all sides and “characters” that resonate and breathe life into the topic. “Ivory Tower,” a new film by Andrew Rossi, which airs on CNN Thursday, November 20 at 9 PM, hits these notes and then some. MCA journalism students screened the documentary earlier this week.
American higher education, the subject examined in “Ivory Tower,” finds Rossi peering into the windows of colleges and universities and finding out just how hard it is to climb the ivory towers. Student debt, the film tells us, has reached over $1 trillion, as tuition continues to rise. To attract students, huge state and private universities — party schools — cater to the whims of the young and install luxury condos as dorms and other high-priced extras. Online learning could be the savior of many who want a college degree, but the film’s view of MOOCs (massive open online courses) paints a less rosy picture. San Jose State learned the hard way that online classes are not always a substitute for classroom interaction after a failed partnership with Udacity. Wherever you look in the world of the ivory tower, Rossi, a veteran filmmaker of such documentaries as Page One: Inside the New York Times, shows us a broken system that needs serious help.
Rossi’s coup de grace in this film has to be the inside peek at Cooper Union’s troubles as they were happening. Fortunate enough to be filming on campus as the college’s era of free tuition began to unravel, Rossi hits the audience with the announcement that the school’s debt would no longer allow it to be free. The filmmaker gets interviews with both students and faculty as they battle during what became a 65-day takeover of the president’s offices, and even shows the school’s graduation where students turned their backs on the president as he spoke. President Jamshed Bharucha, roundly criticized for his insistence on charging tuition at this 150-year-old school, seems cold and distant as students hotly defy his decrees. Rossi looks on as the administration takes loans to build new facilities, presenting viewers with the reason for the debt. He leaves it to us to decide if the school made the right decisions.
“Ivory Tower” shows and talks to students and faculty at colleges and universities such as Stanford, Columbia, Harvard and Wesleyan, but also takes the viewer to Deep Springs College in Nevada, where men work on an active farm for two years while taking classes and abiding by the small school’s three pillars: leadership, self-governance and enlightened service. It also highlights young people in the “uncollege” movement and the Thiel Fellowship. Started by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, this experiment brings young adults together to explore options outside of the traditional college setting.
CCNY students and faculty should sit down and watch this film, not only to understand our own circumstances (debt, rising tuition!), but because Rossi’s keen eye and penetrating camera make it worth seeing. CCNY may feel miles away from some of the schools shown, but students at these colleges could very well be here. Sit down, grab something you don’t mind throwing at the screen and watch this documentary on Thursday evening.