The 20th Annual Life Raft Debate

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the University of Montevallo has some of the best annual traditions, and my absolute favorite is the annual Life Raft Debate, which is held on Founder’s Day, the second Thursday in October. This year was the 121st Founder’s Day (as Montevallo was established in 1896) and the 20th Life Raft Debate.

“But what is the Life Raft Debate?” you ask? It’s something I’d never heard of before coming to the University of Montevallo. Imagine, if you will, that the world has ended. Some sort of apocalypse – be it nuclear, zombie, or what-have-you – has arrived, and what is left of humanity is stranded on a life raft. There is only room in the life raft for one more person, and there are four people who want to get on that raft. These four people come from some disciplinary study at Montevallo (for example, English, Science, Math, etc.) and they have to argue why they (and, by extension, their discipline) should be the ones offered that last spot on the raft.

This year, the disciplines represented were Andrea Eckleman, Political Science; Brendan Beal, Social Work; Susan Caplow, Environmental Science; and Heather Tinsley, Biology. Each of them gave a five-minute speech as to why their discipline was the best, and after everyone had spoke, they each gave a 3-minute rebuttal as to why their discipline was still the best.

For a better description and a full history of the debate, please check out the Montevallo website. Some information is out of date (there are only four participants each year now, not five), but the rest of the history is there.

Here’s a quick run-through of who said what:



Andrea Eckleman won the 19th Life Raft Debate, so, naturally, she had to return in order to defend her oar. After an amusing video showing her “accomplishments” from the past year (i.e., meeting with the leader of North Korea and thereby defusing the impending Nuclear War), Dr. Eckleman stepped up to the podium to declare herself to still be the best person to include on the life raft.



Brendan Beal took the podium from Eckleman, and proceeded to give us a short rundown of his previous work history. He knows all about handling tough situations, because he used to be a social worker before becoming a professor. He talked of working together and making the world better, and ended his speech with a slideshow showing his head photoshopped onto the guy from 300, as well as a picture of his dogs. Being the only man on the panel can be intimidating, but he handled it with aplomb, and didn’t even have to take his shirt off (like someone in previous years did…).



I will admit, I was biased for Susan Caplow from the beginning, because I’ve taken a field trip with her (living in a large room with 17 women will make you become fast friends) and because I honestly think Environmental Science is one of the stronger disciplines up there. Dr. Caplow talked of her own qualifications, from working on several different continents (after all, we don’t know what climate we’ll end up in!) to training animals (“If you want tigers, I can raise them!”) to growing her own sustainable garden. Dr. Caplow ended her speech with a notice that anyone who saves her would technically be saving two, since she is currently six months pregnant, and we will have the gift of life to give us hope in the new post-apocalyptic world.



Unfortunately, it look as though, despite my diligence in taking pictures (although my phone was on 4%!), the picture I took of Heather Tinsley did not show up on my phone. Sadness. Dr. Tinsley platform revolved around her being the Biology professor, and since Biology is the study of life, who better than her to lead us into the new world? She built her platform on the basis of drugs and alcohol and “reproduction,” giving us a rock-star promise of how life would be if we let her on the raft. She got the loudest round of applause when she mentioned fermentation and how she can use it to make any sort of alcohol we may require.


A quick rebuttal round went through, and Dr. Patton, the MC, shook his head as he declared he couldn’t believe how brutal all of his colleges (who were all relatively new hires!) were towards each other.

But the fun doesn’t end there. Oh, no. After everyone had spoken and given their rebuttal, a fifth contestant was allowed to speak. This is the Devil’s Advocate, whose sole goal in life is to convince you to drown all of the contestants and forge a new world without any of the people on the stage. The Devil’s Advocate has won twice in the previous 19 years of the debate.


Scott Varagona, Montevallo’s resident “Chess Boy” and math aficionado, took the stage for his third appearance in the debate, and his second as Devil’s Advocate. His points were that we needed to work together in peace and love, and that he wasn’t going to criticize any of his opponents. There was much booing upon this statement, until he clarified that he wasn’t going to criticize specific things relating to each professor, which he then proceeded to lay flat out anyway. He also did an abridged version of the past 20 years of debates, and it all boiled down to one thing: get rid of the dead weight and start the world anew.


Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 9.08.41 PMIn the end, it all came down to who made the best points. It just so happened that the person who made those points was the Devil’s Advocate. Dr. Scott Varagona, wielding his little plastic pitchfork, holds the oar once more. He last won it in 2015, also as the Devil’s Advocate, and he won it in 2013 as well, successfully defending Mathematics’ place on the life raft.

I wasn’t expecting Dr. Varagona to win. I did vote for him, because I liked the message he put forth. Also, look at that face.


Has all this talk intrigued you enough to watch the debate for yourself? The University of Montevallo livestreamed the debate on their YouTube Channel, but no word as to when that video will be made available to public viewing. I’ll be sure to embed it here when it is. You can also watch debates from previous years as well (such as last year’s).

What do you think about this Montevallo tradition? Is this something you’d like to see at your school? Or do you think we’ve all flipped our lids? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, keep reading.


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