Campus News

Faculty argue for their discipline at Life Raft Debate

Five faculty members vied for a spot in the helicopter during Wednesday's Life Raft Debate. Photos: Nancy J. Parisi


Published February 17, 2017


It’s July 2017. The sun is shining in Buffalo and ongoing renovations in Capen Hall are almost done. While demolishing the last wall in Capen library, construction workers discover a few ancient artifacts — from 1977 — one of which is a curiously engraved brass lamp.

After inspection, the lamp is banished to Capen Cafe to be carbon-dated and stored. A student worker spots the dusty lamp and begins rubbing off the decades-old grime and dirt. At that moment, clouds of billowing smoke pour out of the lamp to form the ghost of Samuel P. Capen, UB’s seventh chancellor.

In a fury, Capen demands to know who has woken him. The panicked student drops the lamp, pushing Capen’s spirit over the edge.

The ghost shouts unintelligible curses at the frightened student, summoning the angry spirits of disliked UB faculty members from years past. As the banshees take flight, they attack the surrounding buildings with nuclear breath. Stampeding students race to safety, only to be lifted into the air and dropped thousands of feet to their deaths.

Amid the chaos, the end seems certain for all — except for a few lucky souls who make it to the roof of Capen library where President Satish Tripathi’s gold helicopter — paid for with the mandatory student fee — awaits, Tripathi himself in the pilot’s seat.

There are five faculty members in this group of survivors: Gwynn Thomas, Satpal Singh, Lance Rintamaki, Will Kinney and Walter Hakala. As they get closer to the helicopter, a chilling truth becomes clear: There is only one seat left.

Which professor survives?

Members of the UB community answered that very question last Wednesday at the sixth annual Life Raft Debate, sponsored by the Undergraduate Academies and the University Honors College. The five faculty members argued why their chosen field is vital to the post-apocalyptic world in order to convince those in the audience that they deserve a spot in the helicopter.

The first professor to fight for his life was Lance Rintamaki, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Communication.

Citing the need for leadership, business, governance, media and other social factors in a new society, Rintamaki emphasized how necessary communication is in all facets of life. He also pointed to his medical training as a way to help humanity thrive instead of merely survive.

“Not only do my skills teach you how to have a good time,” Rintamaki said, “but I have the clinical training to fix you up if you get funny syphilis.”

Next on the chopping block was Will Kinney, an astrophysicist and professor in the Department of Physics. Kinney spoke of the importance of his field in terms of timekeeping, navigation and finding places that are habitable. At one point, he demonstrated his usefulness in assessing radioactive danger.

“We find two places to live — one is contaminated with iodine 131 and the other with cesium 137,” Kinney said. “You make the right decision, everyone lives. You make the wrong decision, everyone dies horribly … you guys are so screwed!”

In stating her case, Gwynn Thomas, associate professor of global gender studies, called her field the “Swiss army knife of disciplines,” referencing the multiple disciplines involved in gender studies. She also said her presence on the helicopter would prevent a society characterized by gender inequality.

“Understanding differences between men and women, and cooperating despite those differences, will limit inequality and ensure that everyone is able to help the collective flourish,” she said.

Satpal Singh, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, took a slightly different approach than his colleagues by emphasizing his background in peace and conflict management. Singh, who has met with numerous world leaders, including the pope, cited the importance of equality and unbiased perceptions in a future world.

“What defines us? Is it our differences that define us or our commonality?” Singh asked. “We are taught that women are inferior to men, colors are inferior to other colors, but we need to take a different approach for a better future.”

Walter Hakala, assistant professor of English and Asian studies, made the final faculty argument of the evening. Hakala told audience members that the only refuge available in the wake of world flooding after nuclear war would be in the East, his area of study.

“The world’s 188 tallest mountains and tallest buildings are in Asia, so if we want to set our feet on the ground, we’ll have to go to ... Asia,” he said. Hakala also that Asia would be the best place for relocation due to its favorable climate and excellent soil.

Patrick McDevitt, associate professor of history and the winner of last year’s Life Raft Debate, played the devil’s advocate and tried to poke holes in each professor’s argument in order to convince the audience that none of them deserved to be saved.

In the end, Will Kinney received the most votes — and the last seat in the helicopter. He also received an appropriate award: a rowing oar.