The Williams Forum fosters informed debates on campus

At The Williams Forum’s campaign finance debate, Daniel Weiner and Ilya Schapiro fostered an informed dialogue about this hot topic. Jason Liu/Staff Photographer.
At The Williams Forum’s campaign finance debate, Daniel Weiner and Ilya Schapiro fostered an informed dialogue about this hot topic. Jason Liu/Staff Photographer.

With a mission to foster more insightful and informed debate on campus, The Williams Forum has begun to hold regular debates on issues such as campaign finance reform, climate change and criminal justice.

William Sager ’17, Paloma Dominguez ’17 and Molly Bodurtha ’17 spent their junior years at the Williams-Exeter Program at Oxford. Their experience attending debates by the Oxford Union made them want to bring a similar model to the College in order “to foster a type of political debate on issues of national or international significance, the types of issues that would receive bipartisan attention, scrutiny and support,” Sager said.

Bodurtha and Sager chose debate topics for the year which stay away from more incendiary issues such as birth control and gun rights. This was done in an effort to encourage informed conversation and thoughtfulness while discouraging “broad platitudes about, for example, whether abortion is right or wrong,” Sager said.

“We see a lot of debate in common rooms, so our first priority is to give students a place to see really prominent speakers talk about these issues alongside their peers, other students, to foster an understanding of where issues are going and how to think about them in terms of solutions,” Sager said.

The Forum has emphasized gathering participants from diverse subsets on campus, who have different interests and can bring different points of view to the events.

“We want pre-med students to come, we want psych students to come, we want students that are interested in philosophy to come. We want to choose questions and issues that mean a lot to a broad range of people, and we want all of those people to be able to engage with it,” Bodurtha said.

By doing so, the founders of the Forum hope to have conversations that hit big issues from different angles and are able to “produce the best and most comprehensive debate possible,” Bodurtha said.

The Forum put its model on display on Thursday with a debate centered around campaign finance reform, specifically whether or not the Citizens United v. F.E.C. Supreme Court case harmed American democracy. The Forum brought in three prominent speakers on the issue. Deputy Solicitor General for the US Department of Justice Malcolm Stewart presented the facts surrounding the topic, giving the audience an understanding of the background within which the debate was to be argued. Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, argued that the Supreme Court decision has hurt American democracy, while Ilya Schapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, argued against the proposition.

After Stewart laid out the facts of the case, the two speakers on opposing sides presented their arguments, followed by a short question-and-answer session. Once all of the audience’s questions were answered, Sager told attendees that if they chose to leave the hall through the left door, it would indicate that they believed American democracy has been hurt by the changes in campaign finance laws due to Citizens United. If they chose to leave through the right door, it would indicate that they believed American democracy has not been hurt by the decision. Sager noted that the results would be tallied by the Forum and announced afterwards.

This feature of the event targets another aspect of debate at the College which the group thinks could be improved, political apathy. Sager thinks this potentially stems from the College’s isolation. This facet of the debate  undercut apathy by forcing each person at the event to evaluate his or her own opinions regarding the issue and share them with others. Attendants had no choice but to concern themselves with the debate and internally engage with it. There was no back door to escape addressing the issue.

Bodurtha noted that a successful debate “is a matter of capitalizing on the community. There are people here who care about these issues among us and people who want to talk about them. This is a way to capitalize on that interest, knowledge and passion on this campus.”

Thursday’s debate successfully capitalized on the community at the College, prompting those in attendance to rethink opinions they held, confront an issue that is central to our democracy and engage themselves in substantive debate.

The Forum’s next  debate is tonight at 8 p.m. and will focus on biomedical ethics and fetal surgery. Looking ahead, it will host an election night party on Nov. 8 and a Forum filibuster on Nov. 11.

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