Once upon a time, a university was meant to create responsible citizens and expand the breadth of human knowledge. Then somewhere along the line administrators realized there wasn't much need for English or music or journalism majors and started to place more emphasis on profitable specializations, like computer science, public relations and that catch-all of American capitalism, "business."
But at least one filmmaker wasn't going to stand around while his state university morphed into an institution of higher learning that was run like a fast-food operation, more interested in the bottom line.
On the surface, Kyle Henry's documentary, University Inc., one of two student films in the traveling McCollege Tour, is about the closing of a small repertory film theater at the University of Texas after the administration tabulated the art house was losing $42,000 a year. But on a deeper level, it is, for Henry, a look at a much larger social issue. "Even though [the theater] might not be seen as that vital, it's another link in a chain that's being eroded by these centers of corporate power."
Henry's opinionated film was conceived shortly after administration officials reclassified the theater as a "revenue center," which forced the art house to reconcile its accounts without the benefit of including student union dues in the bookkeeping. These same dues, according to Henry, are still used to fund other union activities, such as speakers who regularly get paid between $10,000 and $15,000 per appearance, which students can attend for free. The difference, Henry claims, is that the bean counters consider a speaker such as Maya Angelou a "cultural event," providing benefit to the student body and the Austin community as a whole, regardless of any loss incurred. Whereas a Fellini film must show a profit all by its lonesome, as if the administration thought Italian cinema could generate revenue like a Taco Bell. According to Henry, this classification allowed the university to justify renting out the theater to companies for employee orientations and to show the occasional big-budget Hollywood previews organized by marketing firms.
More political rallying cry than documentary, the project began as a student thesis eulogizing the passing of the theater. When co-editor Spencer Parsons was able to garner some interest from the Independent Film Channel's Split-Screen, the focus changed. "We figured we could make this an activist piece to shame the university," Henry says. From there, Henry was able to raise money from Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater and eventually Roger and Me muckraker Michael Moore. "[He] got us to keep the tour rolling in the spring."
Except for an inexplicable detour into affirmative action, the film makes its case by listing a stream of other university expenditures: a $94 million stadium and $800,000 for new floor tile in the union, among other projects. Henry points out that "$800,000 would have kept that program running 20 years." In the film, Henry compares the administration's methods of shutting down the theater to an amusing '50s-era training film used to teach managers how to implement new policies with minimal resistance: Introduce the policy fast, give scant information, stand by your decision, and placate people's concerns with lip service as you ram it through. "The end," Henry states with finality.
Despite all his shrill cries, Henry had little effect on the theater's future; it was still shut down, and Austin, a supposed film center, still has no repertory theater. "Hopefully we're a constant source of irritation, like some sort of infection that won't go away until [the university] addresses it," Henry says as consolation. The important thing for him is to get his message out.
"If value is only determined through the flow of money, everything [is justified] from 'Shouldn't we bump [Grandma] off because she's a drain on the funds?' to 'Why do we need these parks? They'd be a perfect place to store nuclear radiation.' " Henry says. "We as human beings value our existence in qualitative terms, not just in quantitative dollar signs."
Despite the administration victory, Henry still believes that if enough people start to see life as more than a stock portfolio and 60-hour workweek, it might not be too late to save our remaining cultural centers from the McClutches of fast-food administrators. University Inc. and The Subtext of a Yale Education can be seen Friday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m., at Freed Auditorium, Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose Boulevard. $5; $4 for students and seniors. Kyle Henry will be in attendance. For more information, call (713)639-7531. Henry will also hold a film distribution workshop Saturday, June 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Rice Media Center. $40; $30 for students. For more information, call (713)522-8592.