Campus News

Faculty plead for their discipline at annual Life Raft Debate


Published February 23, 2018

“I don’t have to convince you of the superiority of my field. I just have to undermine theirs.”
Will Kinney, professor of physics and devil's advocate
Life Raft Debate

Picture this: The nation is under nuclear attack and a small group of UB students and faculty survive the chaos. These survivors make their way to the coast to construct a life raft, intending to sail off and start a new society.

As they finish constructing the raft and board it with newfound hope, a problem quickly emerges: Three more people still need to get on the raft, but only one spot remains and time is running out.

The three remaining survivors were faculty members Wendy Quinton, Atri Rudra and Victoria Wolcott. Each represents a different discipline that could help guide the new society, leaving the ultimate question: Which professor — and discipline — is worth saving.

Attendees at the seventh annual Life Raft Debate faced that tough question on Tuesday as the three faculty members argued for their final spot on the raft. The event was sponsored by the University Honors College and the Experiential Learning Network.

Wolcott, professor and chair of the Department of History, was up first to argue why she should get the final spot. She presented the idea that her extensive historical knowledge would help to construct a utopian society.

“[Historians] are comprehensive. We know politics, religion, sex and gender. We know all of it, the history of it, and we can bring that comprehensive knowledge to you,” Wolcott argued.”

Her presentation drew laughs from the crowd when she also advocated for a society that practiced complex marriage and had a judicious use of marijuana for PTSD victims of the catastrophe.

Rudra, associate professor of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, was up next, and immediately pandered to the audience by posting a picture of his children on the projector, asking to spare them, too.

He argued that if people still had their computers and smartphones, he’d be able to keep them running and maintain their usefulness, salvaging entertaining cat videos for the new society. But even if computers didn’t make it through the nuclear attack, Rudra still showcased his usefulness through his skills in computational thinking and how it can be used to solve many non-computer-related problems.

Quinton, clinical associate professor of the Department of Psychology, rounded out the professors fighting for their survival. She started her presentation by debunking common misconceptions about her field. She explained that many psychologists have nothing to do with psychotherapy, and that the notion of the field being common sense is completely false.

“People believe that psychological phenomena are obvious and simple. That is wrong and dangerous because that’s the belief that leads people to fail Psych 101,” Quinton said as the audience chuckled.

Using that train of thought, she bolstered her argument by talking about psychology’s power to establish and promote harmony within the group.

“With psychology, we can capitalize on our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses,” Quinton said. “First and foremost, we can use psychology to shape human behavior and prevent inner-group conflict from sinking our life raft. We are going have people from the humanities and people from the sciences. That’s a potentially lethal combination.”

Dressed appropriately as Darth Vader, William Kinney, professor in the Department of Physics and the winner of last year’s debate, served as devil’s advocate for the event. Kinney tried to tear down the three survivors’ arguments, and ultimately gave the audience a fourth option to choose: to brutally drown all three professors.

“I don’t have to convince you of the superiority of my field. I just have to undermine theirs,” Kinney joked.

In quick fashion, he attempted to take down each discipline with a barrage of humor that sent the debate into disarray. Psychology, he said, is based on years of research that can’t be replicated; history degrees spawn trained baristas for a reason; and there isn’t a single computer product that runs consistently. His complete dismissal of each field sent each of the panelists into a panic of defending themselves and their disciplines.

In fact, Kinney even tore apart a argument to keep the political science discipline, one that was supposed to be defended by Michelle Benson, associate professor of political science, who was unable to attend the debate. Political science, Kinney maintained, isn’t a real science.

Once all of the panelists presented their arguments, the floor opened questions from audience members about the different challenges the disciplines faced and the approaches the faculty members would take. As each professor answered, Kinney found a way to discredit them, as bluntly as possible.

After copious debate, it was time for the audience to vote. Attendees were asked to log in to the voting site on their smartphones and submit their verdicts, as the room simultaneously grew silent and lacked the consistent stream of laughter it had all evening.

Finally, with all of the votes tallied, a clear winner emerged: Quinton, who received twice as many votes as the second-place Rudra.

To a large round of applause, Quinton proudly held up the winning prize: a rowing oar that will come in handy as the survivors make their way to a new land and society.