What's new

Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Writer/Director Andrew Rossi (Ivory Tower) + win a Blu-ray! (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

Premium
Reviewer
Senior HTF Member
Joined
Nov 15, 2001
Messages
4,952
Real Name
Neil Middlemiss
Exclusive HTF Interview with Ivory Tower Writer/Director, Andrew Rossi

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Rossi, award winning, and Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker whose recent film, Ivory Tower, seeks to explore the cost and value of higher education in America. Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times documentary in 2011 became a critical darling, and with his follow-up, Ivory Tower, in partnership with CNN Films, he looks to examine another of America’s cornerstone assets – institutions of higher learning.
Ivory_Rossi.jpg
IvoryTower_cover.jpg
Ivory Tower is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.
Enter for a chance to win a copy of the Ivory Tower Blu-ray - details in the first post below.

HTF: Let me jump right in. How did you first become involved with this documentary for CNN? Is this something that they approached you with, or was this a subject that you had an interest in diving deeper into?

Andrew Rossi: Well, I was interested in the topic of higher education basically since I had finished Page One, the last movie I did about the New York Times. I knew that I wanted to do another film that looked at an important American institution that was facing a crossroads, or in a moment of disruption. Higher education, particularly with student loan debt exceeding a trillion dollars, and with Peter Thiel (venture capitalist) paying people $100,000.00 to drop out of school (via the Thiel Fellowship, formerly 20 under 20); and with technology providing online classes, seemed like an institution that was ripe for change. And so I was investigating different story lines that could be pursued. And at the same time CNN Films was just getting off the ground, with Vinnie Malhotra working with Amy Entelis, who were part of this new approach that CNN was taking to changing their programming to not only provide breaking news coverage, but longer in‑depth looks at issues, or characters in the form of a feature documentary or a 90‑minute or plus movie. I met with Vinnie and talked about a lot of different ideas; and one of them I suggested was higher education. And so we started developing it and in just a couple months we were in full-blown production.

HTF: Do you think the economic downturn, the great recession, brought the issue of education costs to a head or do you think it had been boiling for some time and the crash of 2008 has just made it more newsworthy?

Andrew Rossi: I think that the recession really highlighted inequities in many different sectors. In the case of higher education it certainly made even starker the idea that many students are graduating with expensive and, sometimes, degrees that actually are not able to get them a job. And when we talk about student debt and the burden that they are going to have on a monthly basis - which is going to increase exponentially if they default - not being able to have a job and be able to make those payments is such a critical factor. So I think that the recession just sped up some of that problem and dramatized it.

HTF: You covered just about every base that I could think of for higher education, and so when you look back on the documentary and the problems that are in just about every sector of it, what do you think, from everything you learned, is the lynch pin? What's the first domino that you think needs to fall in order to pull America back from the precipice you cover in your documentary?

Andrew Rossi: Well that's a great question. I think that for all the complexity that I include in the film, the root problem is the tuition rates going up and the increase in costs. And so it's clear that the unsustainable increase is producing the spurt in the form of student debt. And it’s tweaking the relationship that families and students have with the institutions; they feel more like consumers or customers. And the demand for amenities rather than submitting to a more rigorous academic experience [isn’t helping.] It's influencing the professors who are trying to maintain the rank and prestige of the institution by doing research and maybe not focusing on students. It's the money. I think it really all goes back to the money that is needed to sustain these schools that are growing in size and cannot be sustained with payments from the students that are enrolling with the incomes [they have.]. Family incomes are not going up fast enough to keep up with the increase in costs on campus. So I think it all goes down to that.
colege.jpg
the-ivory-tower-documentary-.jpg

HTF: Along with the exponential rise in costs for higher education, and the statistics are startling, the corporate world seems to place a higher than ever emphasis on having college degrees at a certain level, and those levels seem to be getting higher. Is that the two sided question – needing higher qualifications than before, that cost more, just to be considered for jobs? Or do you think there's going to be a shift from an employer perspective on not requiring so much qualification or paper?

Andrew Rossi: Well I think the jury's still out on that to the extent that the technology sector has a lot of employers who, as we hear in the film, are more concerned with skillsets such as coding and other programming, abilities which may not requirethe certification of a school in the form of a BA in computer science to make the employer feel confident enough that the potential candidate should be somebody they should hire. So out of Silicon Valley there is a mantra, particularly in the last 18 months or so, that college is no longer the be all and end all. And they are concerned with just hiring candidates who can do the work, and who also maybe in not going to college, demonstrate an appetite for risk and for thinking outside of the box. But I think you're right that there are other industry sectors that place a premium still ondegrees; and, in fact, off-and-on master's degrees to the extent that many people who already have BAs, there's a sort of mission creep to have students then focus on a particular field and get a master's in that, needing to spend another one to three or four years in school and accrue more debt, etcetera.

Certainly when it comes to professions like the law or medicine, in most cases you have to go to law school and medical school in order to do that. But even in the context of law school we do see President Obama and others arguing that maybe it should be a shorter period; Law school only in two years rather than three. And that's largely because it so expensive and the effort on all levels is to just reduce the cost.

HTF: So watching your documentary, I found that it was a celebration of the ideals of higher education, but also an indictment of what's become of the system. So when you think about your experience at Yale undergrad and then Harvard Law, and spending time on the different campuses, and the time on this film seeing these kids going through it now, what struck you most as being different; or what struck you as being exactly the same?
ivorytower1.jpg

Andrew Rossi: Well I definitely felt a similar sense of possibility among the students that I remembered feeling. But there was a certain feeling to that sense of possibility that we found among several students because of the burdens of student loan debt. Student loan debt was something that I was fortunate enough to avoid on an undergraduate basis because my parents were able to pay for me to go, but the tuition at that point was about a third of what it would be today. And, as I mentioned before, family incomes have not kept up with the growth of tuition rates which have increased by 1,120% since 1978.

So I think that we found that the ideal of college lives on. There's still that sense that it is a fantastic bridge between adolescence and adulthood that allows students to discover themselves. But because of the burden of student debt, a lot of students feel that they should not take the time to really figure out what they care about. And in the public school context we see that resulting in some cases in very disturbing dropout rates. I believe we see in the film that it's about 68% of students fail to graduate from public schools in four years; and over the course of six years, that number goes down to about 54%. That's the majority of students who are dropping out. And there are obviously many factors that go into why they're not able to complete. One of the key ones is the sense among them that they can't keep up with the requirements and the costs. And their sense that when they graduate they're not necessarily going to get a job that's going to be worth having spent all that money and time. So again I think biggest thing that's different is this astronomical growth in student loan debt.

HTF: I saw Ivory Towers in some way as a bookend to the Waiting for Superman documentary, that talked about the failings in earlier and part is plays in failing to prepare students for college academically, and then you have astronomical costs and bleaker employment possibilities at the other end of it. And it just creates a bit of a perfect storm, so I think it was a good companion piece.

Andrew Rossi: Absolutely. It's very important, absolutely

HTF: So when I think about the work you did on Page One, where the term ‘free’ was part of the problem, and here the reverse of that is the problem does that that strike you when you compare your two projects? I wonder if that, the point about what we pay for and, and how we pay for it, being two sides of the same coin when you think about free news or the expectation of free news, and the price of education being prohibitive and how that hurts the broader society. Is that something that you considered?


Andrew Rossi: I think that's a good point and others have talked about that too, in this era of everything being available for free online. And certainly with the MOOCS, the Massive Open Online Courses, in large part being available for free – is how that’s a form of disruption for universities? And I think that there's definitely a lot of interesting things to pursue in that. But for me the biggest difference would be that higher education has been traditionally something that in this country we have viewed as a public good, and as something that should be provided, as open access, the way that we are able to get free water and free air and, to expect to have no pollution in our ecosystem. And regarding journalism, I think Page One makes an argument that it is extremely important to our functioning society, but it has historically been viewed as a commodity, as something that people will pay for in the form of media that's packaged either as television or a newspaper, etcetera. So I think what Ivory Tower is trying to show in a sort of historical context is that higher education should not go that route of becoming something that's a business that we are paying these astronomical fees for, but rather is a public good.

HTF: So I'll end with a quick question and a quick comment. So there was a cadence to your documentary that you present a challenge, then a possible solution, then show the drawbacks of that solution, and then there's a little bit of hope before you go on to the next challenge. Is is that how you see the landscape, the future higher education in America? That it will fraught with setbacks but there's hope? And then the comment I wanted to make was one of the most notable moments in the film that I found powerful, when a young student held a sign that said, "We're students not customers," I thought that was a pretty powerful.
we_are_students.jpg

Andrew Rossi: Absolutely, yes. That's was at Cooper Union (The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.) I think your description of the rhythm and cadence of the film is totally right, in that it is a journey, or almost like a road trip through the landscape looking at possible solutions, and then trying to qualify the enthusiasm for all of those based on the realities of how they're playing out today. And yes, I think at the core of the film is this new equation where the students are being treated as customers.

HTF: Well thank you for talking with Home Theater Forum today.

Andrew Rossi: Thanks so much.
IvoryTower_Banner.jpg
 

Neil Middlemiss

Premium
Reviewer
Senior HTF Member
Joined
Nov 15, 2001
Messages
4,952
Real Name
Neil Middlemiss
For your chance to win a copy of Ivory Tower on Blu-ray, simply reply with the College of University you attended. The contest is open to all HTF members aged 18 and older with a US or Canadian shipping address. Winners will be drawn at random and notified via this thread and PM. Prizes not claimed after one week may be re-awarded. Contest closes Sunday 10/12 at 8PM PT

Good luck.
 

bujaki

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Jan 1, 2012
Messages
6,130
Location
Richardson, TX
Real Name
Jose Ortiz-Marrero
University of Puerto Rico as an undergrad.
The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) as a post-grad.
 

Adam Gregorich

Owner
Owner
Moderator
Senior HTF Member
Joined
Nov 20, 1999
Messages
16,500
Location
The Other Washington
Real Name
Adam
Before I get to the winners, I just want to thank both Neil and Andrew Rossi for that informative interview. As a parent of two grade school age kids, their higher education is something we are already think about. I am going to track down a copy of Ivory Tower.

Here are our winners:
bujaki (Jose)
edouard42 (Ed)
Brian Dobbs

Congratulations to all. Please PM me your addresses and I will get these out.

ivorytower.PNG
 

Users who are viewing this thread

Forum Sponsors

Latest Articles

Forum statistics

Threads
350,750
Messages
4,929,476
Members
142,907
Latest member
ofyclinic
Recent bookmarks
0
Top