The Education Business

Still from “Lost Village.”

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries drive a stake into the heart of very different forms of higher-educational chicanery. Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, Roger Paradiso’s “Lost Village” is a no-holds-barred assault on NYU for its role in turning Greenwich Village into a wasteland of empty stores, CVS’s, banks, and fast food emporiums while simultaneously making its student body pay for its excesses, driving female students to turn to prostitution to keep their studies going. Also opening today in Los Angeles’s Laemmle theatre and at the Maysles theater in New York next Friday is “Fail State”, an investigative report on for-profit colleges. Of keen interest to CounterPunch readers, neither film leaves the Democratic Party unscathed. Despite his liberal pretensions, Mayor Di Blasio bestows his blessings on NYU’s scorched earth tactics in the Village while Democrats show little interest in putting the kibosh on for-profit colleges that both Obama and Trump sanctioned, the first commander-in-chief in typically triangulation mode and the second with the same kind of cynical boosterism that characterizes his criminal regime.

Directed by Roger Paradiso, “Lost Village” interviews a wide swath of people committed to blocking NYU’s steamroller advance, from students to shopkeepers being driven out of business by skyrocketing rents. It also benefits from extensive interviews with CounterPunch regular Michael Hudson and Borough of Manhattan Community College historian Anthony Gronowicz who likens New York City, and the rest of America for that matter, as facing a decline as steep as the Roman Empire and for the same reason—super-exploitation of the masses at home and abroad.

Paradiso captured a 2015 NYU rally in Washington Square Park against Wall Street’s grip on higher education that featured “Mandy”, an NYU student who turned to prostitution to keep her afloat. Face hidden in a mask that appeared in the orgy in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, Mandy began her talk:

I would tell you my name, but if I did, I would have to ask which one you wanted.

Are you asking for Alex, the name I had while working in a dominatrix den in Midtown?

Or are you asking for Johanna, the name they gave me while I was a body-rub girl in an Upper East Side Tantra House?

Maybe it’s better if I just stay nameless.

Other students describe a life of constant stress, sometimes going without meals or other necessities in order to continue at NYU. For many, it is not a possibility to live near the school, not even in the East Village that is gentrifying as quickly as the traditional Village west of Broadway. They spend hours each day commuting in from the far reaches of Brooklyn on trains that are far less reliable than they were when Greenwich Village was in its heyday and cost only fifteen cents for a token.

Paradiso interviewed Judith Malina in 2012, three years before her death. With her husband Julian Beck, they practically defined Greenwich Village culture through their Living Theater. Priced out of her apartment in the East Village just as the Living Theater was years earlier because of rent increases, she is forced to retreat to a retirement home in New Jersey. We also hear from the current director of the Living Theater who tells Paradiso that the theater has been reduced to street performances, a casualty of the neighborhood’s succumbing to market forces that have also cost the lives of every single jazz club from the Village Vanguard to the Village Gate.

It is not just culture that has been destroyed. It is also something as basic to human survival as St. Vincent’s Hospital that used to occupy the corner of 7thAvenue and West 10thStreet. It has been replaced by luxury condos where a 4-bedroom apartment goes for $22 million.

The documentary includes a nauseating appearance on a promotional video by John Sexton, NYU’s former president who is welcoming in the class of 2015. Paradiso attempted to line up an interview with Sexton to no avail, a typical reaction from an administration that is beholden to the city’s real estate potentates. So utterly lacking in transparency, NYU’s board of trustees will not allow outsiders to attend their meetings.

In contrast, the small shopkeepers interviewed by Paradiso are throwbacks to the neighborhood’s traditional bohemian gemütlichkeit. We meet Jim Drougas, the owner of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books at 34 Carmine Street. He is the ultimate non-Amazonian and a symbol of what the Village used to represent, where Walt Whitman and John Reed held sway.

Gronowicz and Hudson describe the transformation of the Village in Marxist terms, an outcome of capital seeking the highest return. Since Manhattan is territorially circumscribed, the lucrative real estate market acts as a magnet for American, Chinese, Russian, and Arab money, the only recourse is to show Judith Malina the door. This impoverishes the city while making Saudi princes even wealthier.

NYU’s board is obviously on the same page as these investors. It includes the CFO of BlackRock, JP Morgan Chase’s VP, the President of Paulson & Co., and real estate moguls like William Rudin, Jay M. Furman and Lisa Silverstein. The expansion plans will include massive high-rises whose ground floor will be home to CVS’s, Starbucks, Chase branches but certainly not a bookstore like Jim Drougas’s. These are the type of enterprises that can generate the revenue that the school needs to expand its empire globally, from Abu Dhabi to Shanghai. Joel Kovel once likened capitalist growth to a metastasizing tumor. “Lost Village” will go a long way in exposing the higher-education variety of this disease to those hoping to destroy it, a need articulated by Michael Hudson and Anthony Gronowicz that CounterPunch readers surely share.

“Fail State” is a thorough and eye-opening study of the emergence of for-profit schools like the University of Phoenix that have emerged over the past half-century. It begins by putting them into historical context by starting with the GI Bill and LBJ’s 1965 Higher Education Act that successively opened the door to higher education for America’s working class.

A decisive turn in higher education finance took place in 1972, when a new Higher Education Act fell into line with the “individual choice” that was at the heart of neo-liberalism. Tuition aid was no longer tied to a specific school. Now students could apply for a Pell Grant that could be used for a school of his or her choice. This meant having the freedom to use the funds for either a private school like Columbia, a public school like Lehman College, where my wife teaches, or a for-profit school like those that tended to be advertised on matchboxes.

With government funding available, recruiters poured into low-income communities to persuade young people to take advantage of what appeared to be a government hand-out. The recruiters hid the fact that a degree from DeVry or the ITT Institute could not lead to a well-paying job. They were only interested in fattening the coffers of those who owned the for-profits, namely big Wall Street investors who were the same con artists behind the low-interest mortgages that were bundled into collateralized instruments.

The film interviews several people who were defrauded by these schools, poor people who were seduced into enrolling in these places by recruiters trained to take advantage of their insecurities. We hear from Laura Brozek, an ITT recruiter who earned a $28,000 bonus three months after starting her job. She explains how a script carefully tailored to a subject’s desperation would “close the deal”. ITT was a subsidiary of International Telephone & Telegraph, the same company that conspired with the CIA to overthrow Salvador Allende’s government in 1973, just one year after the neo-liberal Pell Grant program was instituted. What a coincidence.

For-profit colleges were supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. For the Republicans, John Boehner used his leverage in Congress to eliminate any regulations that could get in the way of their expansion.

With their ties to Wall Street, naturally the Democratic Party would see for-profits as a neat idea just like ending Glass-Steagall. Lobbying on behalf of the for-profits included Anita Dunn, a former Obama communications director and his close friend, as well as former House majority leader Dick Gephardt. For-profit college companies spent more than $16 million on such unscrupulous shills.

When Tom Harkin tried to rein in the for-profits, he ran into stiff resistance from the Congressional Black Caucus that regarded regulation as racist. CBC members Alcee Hastings, Donald Payne, Ed Towns, Andre Carson, Bobby Scott, and Charlie Rangel voted for an amendment that made it impossible for the Department of Education to regulate the very schools that were leaving their constituents with massive debts and zero chances of landing a job.

“Fail State” is directed by Alexander Shebanow and executive produced by Dan Rather, who gets my kudos for his support for a valuable investigative report on one of America’s ongoing disgraces that no doubt will be a larger threat than ever under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s full-throated support for this thievery. Considering that Trump University was a massive fraud that the President still stands by, people really need to watch their wallets. Getting the word out on this film will certainly keep potential victims protected from rip-off artists whose chicanery some analysts view as leading to a financial disaster on a 2007 scale.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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