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'Ivory Tower' Is a Scattered Look at an Important Topic

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower opts to generate heat rather than shed light on key issues in American higher education.

Ivory Tower

Director: Andrew Rossi
Cast: Andrew Delbanco
Distributor: Paramount Home Media Distribution
Studio: CNN Films
Release Date: 2014-09-16

Discussions about higher education tend to generate more heat than light, and the reasons are not far to seek. First of all, everyone has their own idea about what higher education is for and should do, whether or not they have any particularly knowledge of or experience in the field. Second, those ideas are frequently in conflict with each other, so administrators must decide which model will be implemented and which will be set aside (even if lip service is given to both). Third, higher education is seen by many as a bridge to adulthood, and any important decision made in the late teenage years is automatically fraught with tension. Finally, Americans tend to expect too much from higher education, as if this single institution not only could but should make up for all the inequalities and injustices in the rest of our society.

Sad to say, Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It does more to generate heat than to shed light on key issues in American higher education, and in fact suffers from many of the deficiencies typical of discussions of this topic. The main flaw with the film is that it seems in need of a dose of Ritalin, as it flits from one topic to another without giving any of them the attention they deserve. The one exception of a topic that gets more screen time than it deserves seems to have been chosen because footage was available or could be conveniently captured by the filmmakers rather than because it is central to discussions of American higher education. Overall, Ivory Tower feels more like a series of canned TV spots that a station could keep on hand to flesh out the broadcast on a slow news day more than it does a serious examination of important issues in higher education.

The issue that receives far too much attention is the student strike at Cooper Union in New York City in 2013. The reason for the strike? Cooper Union, which had been free since it was founded in 1859, was planning to start charging tuition, a decision motivated at least in part by some unfortunate business decisions that left the school with significant debt. Even with the extended time given to the strike, however, Rossi fails to convey some basic facts about Cooper Union to place it in context, such as that it is a small, elite school teaching only a few subjects (art, architecture, and engineering). With an acceptance rate in the range of 5 to 10 percent each year, Cooper Union students can truly say they are among the best of the best, but since Rossi does not provide this information. To someone unfamiliar with the school, the students complaining about having to pay tuition makes them sound like spoiled brats more than young people who earned a spot in this competitive school based on their merits.

Rossi’s focus on the elite and the anomalous is a general problem with this film. Most of the schools visited by Ivory Tower are brand-name private schools—Harvard, Columbia, and Wesleyan among them—while the state universities and community colleges that educate most American students are sadly under-represented.

Rossi even finds time to visit Deep Springs College, which offers a two-year program to fewer than 30 students (all male) annually, and boasts on its web site about the high SAT scores its students and how many of them transfer to Ivy League and other elite universities after attending Deep Springs. I can see the appeal of a segment on Deep Springs College from an aesthetic point of view—located on a California cattle ranch, the school is nothing if not scenic, and the articulate and thoughtful students make great interview subjects—but it’s hardly representative of anything other than itself in the American educational system.

You could easily watch Ivory Tower and come away believing that most American college students today are having the so-called traditional college experience—enrolling directly out of high school, attending full-time, living on campus, and remaining dependent on their parents without significant work or family obligations of their own. And, of course, you would think they mostly attend prestigious private schools, because segments about the University of California system (enrollment over 233,000) and Bunker Hill Community College (enrollment over 14,000) in Boston come late in the film.

Both are included as part of a discussion about MOOCs, and the students at these schools don’t receive the up-close-and-personal treatment offered a Harvard freshman (college enrollment 6,700) to whom the film returns several times, even visiting him in his home neighborhood in Cleveland. In reality, only 14 percent of American college students live on campus, and over two-thirds attend a public institution, and any serious examination of American higher education needs to be grounded in realities such as these.

Extras on the DVD include a question and answer session with Andrew Rossi and Victoria Sobel (a Cooper Union student who featured in the strike segments of Ivory Tower) and two deleted scenes (7 minutes total) featuring Clayton Christensen, Anthony Carnevale, and Andrew Delbanco. Technical quality is high throughout—in fact, many of the segments could easily be glossy advertisements for the universities the film visits.


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