Student debate teams from the College Program at San Quentin and the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) matched wits once again on the prison chapel stage in front of a live audience on February 14, 2020.
The Collegiate Ethics Bowl Match was the culminating competition for the incarcerated team’s intensive semester-long debate workshop. They researched, practiced, and held weekly workshops with coaches throughout the semester-long extracurricular program.
The prison match capped the UCSC team’s annual competition in the national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (IEB).
“Welcome to the third annual Ethics Bowl hosted by the College Program at San Quentin,” said Executive Director Jody Lewen, PhD. “This is our first event as the new independent college, Mount Tamalpais College.”
The hundred or so incarcerated and outside guests in the audience applauded the occasion and then listened to an introduction by Kyle Robertson, lecturer of philosophy at UCSC and coach for both teams.
“The Ethics Bowl is very different from a traditional debate,” said Robertson. “The two teams argue only what they really believe, and they may even agree with each other. The Ethics Bowl allows participants to produce a productive dialogue rather than just shoot each other down.”
With five students from each team seated at tables on opposite sides and three judges seated center stage, moderator and SQ ethics bowl coach Kathy Richards introduced the first issue for debate.
“In this era of climate change, having more children exacerbates the problem and the children themselves will suffer,” said Richards.
“In light of the added pressure on our ecosystem from increasing world population, is it still OK to have more children?”
Moderator Richards started the two-minute stopwatch and the UCSC students quickly huddled around their table and prepared their answer. The team had 10 minutes to present their views.
Marian Avila-Breach opened, confidently stating UCSC’s position. “It is OK to continue to have children despite climate change.” She emphasized the importance of the right of all individuals to choose for themselves whether to have children.
Leqi Zeng explained that other measures such as increasing recycling or reducing pollution make more sense, particularly since climate change negatively affects the poor disproportionately and is caused mostly by corporations.
“A corporate problem should have a corporate solution,” summarized UCSC’s Andrew Genshaft.
“Of course, if any individual chooses not to have a child, that choice is correct for them,” added Noah Thomas, before UCSC’s time ran out.
The San Quentin team then had one minute to prepare their five minute rebuttal. They began their response by summarizing UCSC’s stated views. Next, Alex Ross and Randy Akins asked questions about what corporations should do and why.
Nicholas Paramoure responded for UCSC, explaining that it is immoral to ask those without power to give up their right to have children when the powerful cause more global warming in the first place.
Then it was the judges’ turn to engage the UCSC team. James Clifford, retired UCSC professor, asked the debaters, “Is there ever a point where this ethical question should be considered?” Zeng and Genshaft responded that there is room for the question.
Jennifer Fisher, teacher at the University of San Francisco and Mount Tamalpais College, asked, “Could there ever be a point when more draconian measures would be ethical?” “No,” responded Avila-Breach.
“It is always immoral for someone to tell another to not have a child,” said Zeng. “It’s a matter of human rights.”
Moderator Richards introduced the second ethical question for debate. “Student loan debt is a $1.5 trillion crisis, second in size only to mortgage debt. Most presidential candidates have forgiveness plans.
“Do you think government should forgive student loan debt?”
It was San Quentin’s turn to present their views first. Their position: It is not ethical to forgive the students’ debt.
Charles Crowe led the presentation. He asked, “Do students have a moral obligation to repay?” and answered “Yes.” Then he asked, “Should the debt be paid by taxpayers?” and answered “No.”
Crowe further supported the team’s position: “Autonomy and reciprocity are present in most cases. It is a just moral contract that benefits the less affluent. Unscrupulous lending is a red herring.”
Akins added, “Some may say tax the rich. But the rich wiggle out. Shifting the debt burden to the general public is immoral.”
Zeng began UCSC’s rebuttal to the incarcerated team’s position, stating, “We agree with some of your views, but disagree with some. College education should be paid by taxes because education benefits the public, not just individual students.”
Thomas continued, arguing, “College benefits all, and should be free in the first place.”
Avila-Breach added, “There really is no autonomy. There is no freedom because not having a degree is too difficult.”
Paramoure concluded the UCSC team’s rebuttal, saying, “The debt is unfair because the less affluent have to borrow more.”
The SQ team responded by rejecting UCSC’s argument that because college education ‘should have been free’ to begin with, loan debt should be forgiven. “College is not a panacea. For example, many people are overeducated.”
Jessie Rose followed up, “There are many jobs that don’t require a college degree – McDonald’s, for example, or correctional officers. Value comes from experience as much as from education.”
“The California public chose to limit taxes for education, thus requiring higher tuition decades ago with Proposition 13,” said George Calvin.
Then the judges began their dialogue with the SQ team. “Debt forgiveness is the public deciding later and is different from welching,” said judge Rahsaan Thomas to his fellow incarcerated students. “And by the way, who is paying for your education?”
Smiles filled the chapel as Rose graciously acknowledged that the SQ college program is only possible because of generous supporters, some of who were in the audience. Time ran out. The debate was over. The audience buzzed, excitedly awaiting the decision of the three-judge panel.
THE FINAL SCORES
Judge Clifford: SQ 46, UCSC 42. Judge Fisher: SQ 52, UCSC 51. Judge Thomas: SQ 53, UCSC 52.
The unanimous decision granted the win to the SQ team. The students of Mount Tamalpais College, all new to the debate team except for Akins, kept the tradition of success. The College program at San Quentin remains undefeated through three years of the annual Collegiate Ethics Bowl Match against UCSC.
SQ Ethics Bowl coach Connie Krosney and team members Andrew Wadsworth (for SQ) and Andres Ortuno (for UCSC) also attended and supported their teams.
This year’s team also won a unanimous decision in a scrimmage against Stanford University’s IEB team in December 2019, and lost a split decision to San Jose State University’s IEB team in January 2020.
The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, founded in 1996, is an annual national competition between more than 200 universities. The Collegiate Ethics Bowl Match inside The Q is hosted by the College Program at San Quentin and the Center for Public Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz.
The annual match brings thinkers from diverse backgrounds and circumstances together to engage in civic dialogue about today’s challenging social issues.