July 11, 2023
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Alexander Hiland, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, recently judged a unique debate competition. Students from the Bard Prison Initiative competed against the team from Harvard University in a rematch of a debate that took place eight years ago and garnered international media attention and inspired a PBS documentary. The Bard Prison Initiative provides college opportunities for incarcerated students, and its debate team actually won against the top-ranked Harvard team in that match in 2015.
In the recent debate that Hiland judged, the Harvard team ultimately won 2-1. However, the match was so close that the judges could not reach a consensus. The teams debated the idea that “corporatization in higher education does more harm than good.” The Harvard team was tasked with supporting this idea, and the Bard team opposed it. Hiland has been judging debate competitions since 2007 and considers this match one of the closest competitions that he has ever judged.
“The Bard students are pretty impressive, especially when you consider that they only have access to news wire services to research their arguments,” said Hiland. “They don't have access to peer reviewed research. They are also pretty limited in the amount of face time that they get with an instructor. It’s amazing what they're able to accomplish given the constraints!”
Hiland is also impressed with the Bard Prison Initiative as a whole.
“It helps folks who have gotten into trouble to find ways to change the trajectory of their lives,” said Hiland. “I think it is a force for good in the world.”
Hiland was recruited as a debate judge by David Register, faculty fellow and director of debate at the Bard Prison Initiative. Register had judged Hiland in competitions when he was a student. Hiland hopes Rensselaer can reinvigorate a debate club and encourages students to reach out if they are interested.
“Debate is an impact magnifier for what is happening in the classroom,” Hiland said. “It turns students into experts, which then makes the classroom more effective because they push their professors and their peers.”