As the lights dimmed and suspenseful orchestral music blared through the speakers in the Alice Haynes Room, 10 University of Richmond professors marched across the stage with conviction, eager to convince a room of more than 250 students why their discipline was most equipped to save humanity.
On Tuesday, April 9, Westhampton College Government Association Senator Megan Higgins brought the national professor life raft debate to UR’s campus for the first time.
In the debate, a fictional catastrophic event has threatened the existence of mankind. UR professors from departments of accounting, biology, economics, environmental studies, history, leadership studies, philosophy, political science, physics and religious studies crashed on a remote island with room for only one to ride on a raft back to safety. The saved professor is tasked with reviving society with their expertise.
“People were upbeat and excited to watch the tables be turned,” Higgins, a senior, said. “For once, we get to see the professors compete against each other, rather than them always watching the students.”
In rounds one and two, audience members cheered as each professor was given two minutes to declare their stance and refute their opponents’ arguments.
“There is a creature that is the world’s greatest survivor and that creature is going to provide you a role model that is going to help you decide which 10 of us is going to survive,” said accounting professor Joe Ben Hoyle, kicking off the night. “That creature is of course a cockroach. Accountants have all the best characteristics of cockroaches.”
The room filled with laughter as Hoyle commanded the stage, pacing back and forth, comparing the tenacity of accountants to that of cockroaches. Audience members gasped with surprise as he pulled out a flag with a giant picture of a cockroach to rally supporters.
Audience members continued to lean in with anticipation as biology professor Shannon Jones explained her specialty in treating infectious disease, history professor Chris Bischof defended his ability to chronicle human decision-making processes, economics professor Chadwick Curtis proclaimed the importance of allocating scarce resources and leadership professor Jessica Flanigan argued for rebuilding from a place of meaning.
“The world is almost entirely destroyed, we don’t need fancy theories about how to run elections and we don’t need to contemplate whether we actually exist or if water is real,” said physics professor Jack Singal, calling out his colleagues in the departments of political science and philosophy.
“Keep the lights on, keep the showers hot, keep the beer cold,” Singal chanted, pumping his fist in the air.
Playful tension grew stronger as environmental science professor Mary Finley-Brook marched toward Hoyle, exclaiming: “I wasn’t ironing a cockroach on a flag before this, I was in a high school giving environmental education. That’s what you get with environmentalists, we’re changing the world.”
After a third round, where professors had a chance to give last remarks, audience members cast their votes. The lowest-scoring disciplines were asked to exit, leaving physics, accounting, political science, religious studies and philosophy on the stage.
A drum roll grew faster and louder as the remaining professors awaited their fate. In a climactic uproar, Singal was crowned the winner of the debate and awarded a bright orange life jacket, a trophy and a $100 gift card.
“It was the highlight of my year,” Singal said. “Everybody was really excited with everyone’s responses and really engaged. It was great. Just great.”
When asked whether he would be back next year to defend his title, Singal, without hesitation, said, “Absolutely.”
Higgins said she hoped people continued to think about the debate after they left.
“I think it’s really important for everyone to think outside their major because that is the true essence of a liberal arts degree,” Higgins said. “I hope people think about the debate after they leave. I hope they are more critical of the field they have chosen and they see value in fields that they didn’t expect to see.”
Contact contributor Jeanette Lam at firstname.lastname@example.org.