UD, Loras go head to head in social-justice debate

For many years, Loras College and the University of Dubuque have had a rivalry that has ranged from not only athletics and fine arts but also to academics. Both institutions promote higher-thinking and encourage discussion. Three years ago, when UD contacted Loras about the possibility of a debate, honors program director Dr. Erin VanLaningham and religious studies professor Dr. Jacob Kohlhaas decided to give it a try.

“When we were approached by University of Dubuque to have an inter-collegiate debate, I saw it as an opportunity to build community between the first-year honors students and for them to exhibit their critical thinking and reflection skills in a public forum,” Dr. VanLaningham said.

On Wednesday, April 26, students from both institutions and the public gathered in the Marie Graber Ballrooms to watch the second annual Social Justice Honors debate. This tradition began last school year, and first-year students in the honors program, more specifically Dr. Kohlhaas’ honors Catholic Tradition class, debated against University of Dubuque’s honors students.

While there were only two debaters per category, the rest of the class were involved in other committees such as time-keepers for the debate and publicity. The class communicated throughout the semester with the University of Dubuque in order to choose debate topics and which side they would argue. Both classes worked together in order for the event to take place, including meetings that took place before the debate happened.

“The importance of the event is to bring the two schools together to demonstrate a unique and important form of public discourse,” Dr. Kohlhaas said. “This year we’ve attempted to create more interaction between the two classes so students from each school get to know each other a little better.”

Each institution’s class proposed a topic, so there were two topics debated during the event. The first was the question, “Should the United States government broadly permit human genetic modification?” The other question was, “Should the United States encourage, permit, and fund embryonic stem cell research?” Loras argued the negative side for both topics.

The debate functioned in the style of a parliamentary debate. Since there were two topics, each was addressed in their own debate. Two students from each institution teamed up to debate each topic. To start, each side got an opening statement, then a chance to address the other’s statements. A predetermined member of the audience was then allowed to stand and make an additional one-minute speech on something not yet addressed before each side gave a closing statement. All speeches were timed and speakers were stopped when their time was up. A new addition to the debate is called the “point on information.” This meant that each team got one chance to interrupt the speaker to ask a clarifying question at one point during the debate.

In order to determine a victor of each debate, the audience was given the opportunity to vote after hearing both sides of the argument. Votes will be tallied and the winners will be disclosed to the classes once they are revealed.

The honors program at Loras challenges students to go beyond the classroom and to do their own independent research and to approach topics from different viewpoints that may not be the individual’s own. Before starting their three-year projects next school year, it gives the first-year honors students a chance to build on both leadership skills and team building, which are soft skills the honors program promotes.

“The debate is an introduction into many facets of our honors program, especially researching a topic and approaching it from various viewpoints,” Dr. VanLaningham said. “It also allows students to begin to engage with important questions of social justice and civil discourse among diverse communities.”
The debate allowed the chance for students of both institutions to not only interact with each other, but have an academic discussion of relevant issues. That may have not been possible without this debate.

“Rivalries are fun, but building civility and platforms for discussion across divisions is important for our society today,” Dr. Kohlhaas said. “We hope this makes a small contribution.”

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