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The Blue & Gray Press | August 21, 2019

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O'Donnell speaks to benefits of debate programs in higher education


An interview with Timothy O’Donnell, associate professor and former director of debate at the University of Mary Washington, aired on Virginia public radio stations, discussing debate at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

According to O’Donnell, he became interested in debate at HBCUs when he read Dr. James Farmer’s autobiography, “Lay Bare the Heart.”

Farmer was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and a professor at UMW.

O’Donnell said that his extensive research on Farmer gave him the opportunity to work with the producers of “The Great Debaters.” Released in 2007, the movie starred Denzel Washington as Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College, in Texas.

Tolson led students to form the school’s first debate team in 1935, when Farmer was a student and debater.

“There was a good momentum created with the debut of the film to go to the HBCU presidents and say, ‘look, Wiley College did it and did some extraordinary things,’” said O’Donnell.

While promoting debate at HBCUs is important, according to O’Donnell, he believes that it should be promoted at all colleges and universities.

“If you pride yourself on being a liberal arts institution, you can’t not think of the role of fundamental training of debate,” said O’Donnell. “If they are going to invest in competitive sports, they should invest in debate.”

Since the interview first aired in 2010, O’Donnell said that he has seen debate programs grow at places like Fayetteville State and Hampton University.

“The thing that I’m probably happiest about is the thing happening back at Marshall, Texas. They’ve really re-started debate there,” O’Donnell said.

Although some universities are successfully reviving debate at their schools, UMW saw a decrease in the number of students participating in debate, according to Adrienne Brovero, UMW’s director and head coach of debate.

“I feel like that is because people have felt a need to double major and find jobs,” said Brovero.

According to her, the university is supportive, but students do not have the time commitment, partially due to the economy.

While this is true, Brovero thinks debate is important for students in today’s society.

“This is the age of the internet. We have tons of information available, and critical judgment is important to know what sources to trust,” said Brovero.

“The ability to learn to identify a topic, to break it down, to research it, to then communicate about it and to be willing to change your mind if proven otherwise, can lead to success in graduate school, and success in life,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell, a clear advocate of debate programs got his start in debate in the eighth grade.

“It certainly gave me everything that I’ve had. I have a lot to continue to give back and hopefully I can be a strong advocate for debate as I move forward,” said O’Donnell.