They are better than Harvard, Navy and the University of Pittsburgh, and on April 14 the West Virginia University Debate Team will tackle issues of race.

At mid-season, WVU’s Debate Team was ranked 17th in the country. Last year they were declared Most Improved Team in the nation by the Cross-Examination Debate Association, and upon completion of the season were ranked 23rd.

On Wednesday, April 14, the team will debate “Does Race Matter?” as the final presentation in WVU’s 2010 David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas. The presentation will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Mountainlair ballrooms.

“I am extremely proud of the entire 2009-10 WVU Debate Team. They have excelled in competition, and I expect them to bring to bear all sorts of experience and expertise in the public debate on race,” said team Coach Neil Berch, associate professor of political science at WVU.

The presentation is a joint effort between the team and the WVU Philosophy Department, as part of its The Question project. Surrounding the presentation, the department will post the question – “Does Race Matter?” – on a blog for students, faculty and staff to discuss their argument. The forum can be found at

“The hope is that the campus will engage in discussion about this issue before and after the Festival of Ideas,” said Sharon Ryan, chair of the Philosophy Department. “I chose ‘Does Race Matter?’ because some of the other speakers in this year’s festival series were speaking about race and diversity. Moreover, it is a great question.

It does seem that race winds up mattering in a lot of important issues that face our society. But, if it matters, why does it matter? How does it matter? And, should it matter? Furthermore, what is race? I think these are important and interesting questions that intelligent people should be discussing in a rational and respectful environment. And, that’s what my project, The Question, is all about,” she added.

Philosophy professor Nathan Placencia is the featured thinker on The Question for the issue on race. He teaches a course titled “Philosophy of Race” and has set up a lot of the questions about race on the blog.

The 2010 David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas lecture series is supported in part by the David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas Endowment, which was established in 2007 by the WVU Foundation, a private, nonprofit corporation that generates, receives and administers private gifts from individuals and organizations for the benefit of WVU.

For more information about the 2010 Festival of Ideas, visit

The art of debate

The Festival of Ideas event is not typical for the debate team.

Each year, the team – currently composed of 10 students from all ranks majoring in everything from political science to finance – usually spends their time researching one topic that they will debate all sides of for the season. This year the topic is nuclear weapons policy, last year it was farm subsidies.

The team spends many of their weekends traveling to other schools’ campuses to participate in hours of debates – sometimes with as many as five 90-minute rounds in a day.

“It is a really great educational opportunity. You do all the research that you would do to write an in-depth paper, but without the paper. You create your own positions and put scholars’ work together to make an argument. Not to mention, all the experience you get public speaking,” said Samantha Godbey, assistant coach and political science graduate student.

Godbey, of Walton, is the 2010 recipient of the Matthew Grindy Assistant Coach of the Year Award, which goes to the best debate graduate assistant in the country. She has also been recognized as the 2010 Critic of the Year for the North East district.

Also, debaters Courtney Plante, a junior political science major from Beckley, and Erika Jensen, a freshman political science major from South St. Paul, Minn. were novice semifinalists (the 3rd best novice team in the nation) at this year’s Cross Examination Debate Association’s national championship tournament in Berkeley, Calif.

For more information on WVU’s Debate Team, contact Coach Neil Berch at .



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