University of Detroit Debate Program

debate1The University of Detroit had a debate program almost from the beginning of the university’s establishment. It started out under the Philomathic Society until 1924 when the debating team was organized under the Department of Public Speaking. One of the longest running contest was for the Skinner medal. The Skinner Debate was founded in 1897 by Henry W. Skinner, a resident and citizen of Detroit, who donated $1,000 to the University of Detroit Philomathic Society, a group fostering the reading and appreciation of good literature, and encouraging proficiency in eloquence.

The Skinner Debate format: “The debate [was] conducted in the Parliamentary style, similar to that employed by the Oxford Union and other debating societies. Speakers appear as individuals, not as members of teams. Contestants are allowed to choose their positions. Each one will make a 10-minute constructive speech and a 3-minute rebuttal.

Members of the audience [were] invited to indicate their stand on the Question before the House by their selection of seats on the affirmative side, or negative of the House (which they may change, should their convictions [change], during the evening of debate)”

Initially the Skinner competition was just for UD students, but in 1966 it changed to an intercollegiate competition with other universities.

Here is a sample of some of the debate topics, many that are just as interesting now as it was back in the days when it was presented:


  • That the United States should adopt a program of compulsory health insurance for all citizens (1961)
  • That the nations of the western hemisphere should enter into a permanent alliance (1941)
  • That the U.S. remain aloof from all entangling alliances and adhere to its former policy of isolation (1919) (I guess they wanted to to avoid another world war!)
  • That the Non-communist nations of the world should establish an economic community (1963)
  • That the United States should discontinue direct economic aid to foreign countries. (1957)
  • That law enforcement agencies should be given greater freedom in the investigation and prosecution of crime. (1966)
  • Should the United States adopt a guaranteed annual cash income for all U.S. citizens? (1968)
  • That Congress should be given the power to reverse decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. (1960)
  • That the immigration laws of the United States should be made more stringent. (1898)
  • That the National Labor Relations Board be empowered to enforce arbitration of all industrial disputes. (1938)
  • That the requirement of membership in labor organization as a condition of employment should be illegal. (1958)
  • That greater controls should be imposed on the gathering and utilization of information about U.S. citizens by government agencies (1972) (What would they think of NSA today!)
  • That the powers of the presidency should be significantly decreased. (1974)

debate2To the great disappointment of many, the debate program as part of the Speech Department was downsized in 1971 because the university was undergoing some financial problems. Initially, many people thought the entire Speech Department was being eliminated and there are a few letters in the file expressing their concern that such a drastic action was being taken given the success of the debate program. The university continued the Speech Department, but its participation in various debate contests at the intercollegiate level seems to have ended around the 1975-76 academic year.

Although there is no debate contests at UDM currently, there is now in a similar activity, the Ethics Bowl-but I will leave that for another blog.