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Monday, December 11, 2023
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Sink or Swim: Honors College Life Raft Debate

The Honors College is under nuclear attack and only one professor can save the surviving members that remain. Their struggle: re-creating a civilization.

This was the inaugural UB Honor's College Life Raft Debate. The event was held on Feb. 23 in Capen 107 and called for five professors to argue in front of a group of students for their respective discipline's worth in a post-apocalyptic situation.

The professors who participated were Dr. Jennifer Zirnheld (Electrical Engineering), Dr. Alfred D. Price (Urban and Regional Planning), Dr. Gregory Dimitriadis (Education), Dr. Andrew Stott (English), and Dr. Thomas Barry (Classics), while Dr. A. Scott Weber, Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education, served as the moderator.

In the end, it was Price who sailed off into the horizon with the survivors.

The UB Life Raft Debate is the brainchild of University Honors College Program Coordinator Megan Bragdon. Bragdon started to plan the event in her mind three years ago after an episode of talk radio show "This American Life" on NPR. The show featured a story on the University of Montevallo's annual life raft debate, which was in its 14th year at the time.

Bragdon had to wait for a proper work environment to enact her plan, and her new role as program coordinator at the Honors College was the perfect opportunity.

"I've been carrying this little gem with me for awhile," Bragdon said. "This event is special because it offers a twist on a classic debate which might normally seem dull and static. The element of the life raft with students vying for their own survival makes it dynamic and fun. It's still an academic program, but also a lighthearted way for students to look at why they're studying what they're studying."

The evening began with an introduction from Weber, who was specifically chosen for his dynamic and entertaining personality, according to Bragdon. After this, each professor was allowed 10 minutes to present their argument before time was allowed for rebuttal from the others.

Professors finished speaking and then students were encouraged to ask questions and challenge the arguments of each professor. This process went on for 45 minutes before a vote marked Price as the winner.

"I had never heard of this kind of an event before, so it was all new to me," Price said. "It was my maiden voyage. If this hypothetical catastrophe hit, you would want someone whose knowledge would be helpful in that situation."

Maiden voyage or not, Price used his expertise in utilizing minimal resources for designing and sustaining human environments coupled with his emphasis on a collective effort toward survival to sway the crowd to vote in his favor.

"My argument to the student group was that the discipline of environmental design is concerned with the design of all aspects of the human habitat," Price said. "Here we are with nothing, so it seems to me you'd want someone with some knowledge and skill in devising how we would survive. The whole essence of the ‘survival problem' as we would treat it in urban and regional planning is very much germane to the theme of this event. The designing of systems where everything must be thought of for shelter, food, etc."

Even those students who didn't vote for Price recognized the authority of his argument.

"I voted for Dr. Barry because I like that he operates without too much use of technology and his true understanding of past societies and history made a lot of sense to me for the purpose of the debate," said Nick DiRienzo, a freshman computer science major. "In the end, Dr. Price gave a really good argument and deserved to win."

Although many professors attempted to explain that history, humanities, and other fields would benefit a new society, Price had strength in keeping his enemies close within his own proposal while highlighting his major points at the same time. His argument was based around skills in survival but also the integration of other disciplines seen in urban and regional planning.

"I'm not against art, I'm not against beauty, but if we were in the life raft and everyone needed shelter, I'm not sure I'd want to be sitting around quoting Cicero," Price said. "I agree that all of that is very important, but environmental design also takes into account the principles of many disciplines to better understand our work."

Students and teachers alike agreed that the event was well-attended and filled with jokes and laughs, many of which came from the charm of Stott.

"I voted for Dr. Stott basically because he made me laugh and his argument was really funny," said Sarah Smith, a freshman mathematics major who also helped plan the event. "He charmed me into voting for him, but Dr. Price made really good points and deserved to win."

Stott based his argument around the Franz Kafka quote, "Literature is the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us," but ultimately found himself on thin ice after Price was finished with the crowd.

Stott jokingly claimed that Price ‘cheated' but later admitted that he, in fact, intimidated the opposition.

"The event had a very good turn out. It went really well and it was a fun evening with lots of laughs," Stott said. "I think they should make it a tradition here at UB."

Plans for next year are already in the works after this year's success, according to Bradgon. She was happy with the 40 or so students that showed up this year, but hopes to one day extend the event to all UB students, and in five years would like to host it in the Student Union Theater.




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