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Gee, self-proclaimed ‘academic terrorist,’ targeted in student documentary

Courtesy of Cassie Wihelm

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Like many college students, Ohio State alumnus Michael Newman pursued higher education for the purpose of gaining access to a good job with a high salary.

However, upon graduation, he discovered that life in the real world was nothing like that which he had been promised.

This is why he began filming “The Elephant on Campus,” a documentary exploring the problems afflicting higher education in America and the search for solutions.

Newman was made to believe all throughout high school and college that earning a college degree would guarantee him a good job. He gathered the money he needed through student loans and graduated in 2004 with a degree in art with a focus on video production. He’s now working on two other documentaries as well.

But Newman soon learned that his degree would do little in helping him to pay off all the debt he had accumulated.

“I just think that, for a lot of people, it’s not worth going into a lot of debt when job prospects are very grim,” he said to The Lantern.

Experts are predicting the national student loan debt, which has surpassed credit card debt, to surpass $1 trillion in the next year.

“Student loan debt is a huge problem plaguing our country. Many people say it’s the next bubble to burst,” Newman said. “Student loan debt right now is already more than total credit card debt. … Student loans are the only type of consumer loans that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. I don’t think it’s right to bury people under all this debt when they could be contributing to society.”

Another problem Newman had with the system is the taboo nature of discussing the possibility of failure when going through school.

“The first time I had ever heard the mention of failure was from my commencement speaker on my graduation day,” he said. “I spent my youth and college days trying to avoid failure. … But then once you get in the real world, failure is inevitable and you should embrace it and use it as a learning experience.”

Newman’s status as a victim of the higher education system is what drives his passion.

“No one’s really speaking up for these people, and I’m one of these people, so hopefully I can use this movie as our megaphone,” he said. “Also, I want to prevent high school students from falling in the same traps that I fell into, such as assuming that going to college is the quick fix, and it’s going to guarantee success. That’s not the case.”

Newman has tried to land an interview with OSU president E. Gordon Gee for his perspective on the matter.

On Newman’s blog, he said about Gee: “considering how much he is overpaid and the fact that he works for a public university, there are many questions he should HAVE to answer for students, their parents, and the taxpayers of ohio.”

Newman also cites an instance where Gee described himself as an “academic terrorist.”

Gee declined to be interviewed by Newman. He was also not available to comment to The Lantern.

College is a great environment for students to broaden their horizons and the atmosphere is a key factor in understanding the importance of higher education, said Lisa Sipes, OSU undergraduate academic adviser and internship coordinator for the School of Communication.

“The experiences in a college setting cannot be replaced,” she said. “It’s a safe environment for people to be able to think about new things.”

She added that there is more to being successful in college than simply getting good grades.

“A degree alone is not always enough,” she said, stressing the importance of taking advantage of internships, co-ops and other such opportunities. “We’re encouraging students to make sure they have those outside-the-classroom experiences.”

Nate Straten, a third-year in environmental policy and management, was already aware of this, but pointed out another imperfection with this system.

“It’s hard because jobs nowadays are easier to get with experience, which means like internships, but a lot of people can’t afford to take an unpaid internship,” Straten said. “I don’t really know of an easy method to fix it, but it doesn’t seem like a college degree necessarily guarantees you a job.”

So far Newman has put around $3,000 into the project, which is about half-done. He is currently in the process of gaining more funds for the production of the film, which he says will cost another $15,000 to $30,000. He’s trying to raise funds in a variety of ways, including private investments, grants and crowd funding through the website www.IndieGoGo.com which gives fans rewards for donating at certain levels as well as tax deductions for their donation.

Newman began preproduction of the film in March, and began filming in June. He hopes to have the project completed within a year, but this will ultimately depend on his access to funding.

“Education is not a one size fits all thing,” Newman said. “The idea that everyone should go to college. … I don’t think that’s a good idea. Education should be more personal, an individual thing, more than just this broad idea. Maybe it’s college maybe it isn’t, but whatever it is, follow your passion and do what makes you happy.”

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