Fort Hays State University has fired its debate coach for losing his temper at a tournament, engaging in a videotaped shouting match that included pulling down his shorts to expose his underwear.
University President Edward H. Hammond also announced Friday that the school was immediately suspending its debate program until problems are addressed at the national level. He said it was important to take a stand against the declining standards of college debate.
The argument between Fort Hays State debate coach William Shanahan and another coach following a tournament match at Cross Examination Debate Association event at Wichita State University in March received nationwide attention after it was posted on YouTube on Aug. 2.
The video showed Shanahan, 47, in an angry confrontation with Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, the debate coach from the University of Pittsburgh, following a debate between the Fort Hays State and Towson State of Maryland.
It was apparently sparked after the Fort Hays State team dismissed under debate rules Reid-Brinkley, who is Black, as a judge of that match. The Towson State debate team and Reid-Brinkley called the decision to remove a Black female judge an act of “White hegemony,” an exercise of power by Whites over Blacks. Shanahan is White.
“While he clearly reacted in an inappropriate manner, I understand why Mr. Shanahan was outraged by the not-so-veiled accusations of racism,” Hammond said. “During his 10 years at FHSU, I have known Bill to be a fervent champion of the underdog and racial equality.”
The association said it allows events to be recorded for educational purposes but that the group was not consulted before the video was posted on YouTube.
Shanahan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Friday that while his reasoning might seem convoluted, he argued with the other coach because he respected her and her opinions.
“Obviously it got out of control, but to be honest I thought I was in a safe house,” Shanahan said. “I thought I was part of a community that handled its problems internally and that recognized the dangers of exposing ourselves — no pun intended — to the rest of the country. It is so difficult as a non-participant to understand what is going on in the debate round.”
Hammond said no one from the tournament staff notified university officials about the incident until it was posted on YouTube. Shanahan, an assistant professor of communication studies, has taught at the university for 10 years but does not have tenure. He led the university’s debate team to a national championship in 2002.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but these actions are not acceptable for someone who is representing our university,” Hammond said in a written statement.
“If the coach of one of our athletic teams became angry and ‘mooned’ officials, student athletes and fans during a sports event, he or she would no longer be a coach at Fort Hays State University,” Hammond said. “Standards for our debate program are certainly just as high.”
Shanahan said that Hammond is doing what he believes is best for the university.
“I’m disappointed it is ending this way, and I wished there was another solution,” Shanahan said. “Obviously I thought there would be. I thought there was a way not only to preserve my place at the university, but perhaps even more importantly to protect the debate program.”
Darren Elliott, president of the Cross Examination Debate Association, told the AP in an e-mail, “The Fort Hays program has a rich tradition, and to lose it, based on misunderstandings would be tragic to the students, the history of the program and to academia.”
Hammond, who was a college debater himself, took issue with the declining standards at college debates, which he said are laced with profanity and a lack of personal respect and civility.
“I place high value on college debate as an exceptional learning opportunity,” Hammond said. “However, I had no idea that college debate had degenerated into the kind of displays that we witnessed when we watched CEDA events on the Internet. College debate has changed greatly.”
However, Shanahan said, “What is being seen as a lack of civility and decorum is actually what has allowed the access barriers to debate to be decreased dramatically. If people are allowed, encouraged to speak in their own voice, to express opinions — there is a phrase that comes from an Italian political philosopher called ‘organic intellectuals’ — and it is the idea that people of different communities and classes and contexts are able to speak in their own voice and to be able to exchange ideas in a way that the dominant majority doesn’t approve, doesn’t understand and perhaps roundly criticizes and so you saw people speak in a way that was commensurate with their own social location.
“And so ironically the president is, I am convinced, a strong supporter of a meaningful minority participation in higher education and debate, but the very thing that he criticizes is what has allowed people of color and others to be a part of the debate community – especially the last 10 years.”
The association issued a statement Friday saying it respected the decision made by Fort Hays State to dismiss its coach but that the behavior seen on the video does not reflect the majority of its community.
But the group said it would discuss with its members ways to improve curriculum and professional conduct. It said it has already begun a review of its bylaws to “further promote educationally and professionally appropriate behavior” among its members.
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