Faculty argue for survival at Life Raft Debate

A man standing on a raft.


Release date: March 16, 2021


Picture this: World leaders have just unleashed utter chaos, launching nuclear missiles in a global war. The world as we know it is now a nuclear wasteland.

The only survivors are five UB professors and a handful of students from the Honors College. The students hold the ultimate responsibility of building a new society from the ground up, ensuring the human race lives on.

Their destination is an untouched island, suitable for human life. The means of transportation is a small life raft, with capacity limited to the students and one professor.

As the group of UB affiliates sits ashore, the professors plead their case to convince the students that their knowledge and background in their respective disciplines are worthy of their filling the coveted final seat in the raft.

The faculty members — John D. Atkinson, Kenneth R. Hoffmann, Elizabeth Mazzolini, Jacob Neiheisel and Craig Centrie — each represents a potentially vital discipline from which their leadership is essential to build a new, better society.

This daunting question was answered at UB’s 10th annual Life Raft Debate, held Wednesday night — for the first time via Zoom. The audience heard arguments from the five professors before ultimately deciding who would lead them in a new life on the island. The event was sponsored by the Honors College.

Atkinson, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, was the first to plead his case. He wasted no time stating that he spends most of his days thinking about garbage and recycling, and is passionate about minimalism and sustainability.

He emphasized that everything he studies is relevant to this situation, and that he would implement measures to create a sustainable environment.

“Climate change would never be an issue,” Atkinson said. “We would avoid ever needing a lifeboat again.”

Although convincing, Atkinson confessed that most of his survival skills come from watching the TV show “Lost.”

Hoffmann, professor of neurosurgery in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, was up next. He began his presentation declaring that he was trained in dealing with nuclear warfare: He was schooled during the ‘60s. Although hiding under a desk would not do much good post-war, he did say avoiding the island and going underground would be the best option. Radiation poisoning may pose an extreme risk, he said.

The third was Mazzolini, associate professor of English. She said having an English professor is important in the development and application of language. The survivors, she said, would be getting the “best” English professor out there.

She argued that the art of rhetoric would be important in persuading others to carry out tasks essential for survival. In her rebuttal following initial arguments, she came on screen wearing a sun hat and citing entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as saying that English majors are important. English majors possess creative skills and a sense of adaptability lacking in other disciplines, Mazzolini noted, stressing the importance of having an expert in writing documents who is trained in first aid.

“Having someone who can write and edit founding documents would be important,” she said.  

Neiheisel, associate professor from the Department of Political Science, argued that his powerlifting experience and preference for frozen food are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to qualifications.

His knowledge of international conflict and nuclear disarmament is crucial as well, he said. If the hypothetical world leaders had listened to him in the first place, Neiheisel said, this scenario would not be an issue.

He also said he could stop the spread of misinformation, which would ultimately cause many logistical and social dilemmas.

Centrie, adjunct professor in the Department of Africana and American Studies, said his experience living in the Andes and Sri Lanka — sometimes without electricity — proved his adaptability. His knowledge of linguistics, archaeology, and both cultural and physical anthropology would be essential. He noted that as an expert on human development, he was well versed in eating out of a can.

The final speaker was last year’s winner and this year’s devil’s advocate, Shira Gabriel, associate professor in the Department of Psychology. She urged students to leave all the professors behind and use that extra space for supplies.

“Our generations have messed everything up for you guys already,” said Gabriel. “Just look at this past year, for example.”

Her message: Leave the elders behind. As college students, they are smart enough, with a variety of backgrounds that will serve them well.

After an hour of debate, students voted. Who would come with them, if anyone? The winner: Atkinson, whose knowledge of sustainability was thought by students to be the most helpful attribute in rebuilding the new society.

Atkinson had earned his reward: a virtual oar commemorating all previous Life Raft Debate winners.

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

4. Quality Education

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

13. Climate Action

14. Life Below Water 

15. Life on Land

17. Partnerships for the Goals