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September 25, 2008

Pitt prof apologizes for behavior at debate

In the aftermath of a shouting match between coaches at a national debate tournament that drew international attention online, Pitt has announced that communication professor Shanara Reid-Brinkley, director of the University’s debate team, will not act as a debate tournament coach or travel with competitive debate teams this academic year. In addition, Pitt will not compete in tournaments run by the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA).

The University’s action was sparked by an incident between Reid-Brinkley and a counterpart from Fort Hays State University that occurred during a CEDA national tournament last March.

During the heated encounter, Fort Hays debate coach Bill Shanahan “mooned” Reid-Brinkley, dropping his shorts to reveal his underwear-clad backside. The obscenity-laced incident drew international attention after a video showing nearly nine minutes of the argument was posted on YouTube in early August.

Reid-Brinkley expressed regret in a Sept. 16 press release issued by the University, stating, “Despite serious provocation, such language was unprofessional. I apologize for any embarrassment I have caused the University.” Reid-Brinkley joined the Pitt faculty in 2007 from the University of Georgia, where she had been a teaching assistant in speech communication.

The same release stated that Pitt has conducted “an extensive review” of the matter, which “has revealed that unacceptable behavior was on display in ways that are incompatible with Pitt’s standards for participation by our representatives in varsity competitions” and that Pitt officials “have discussed” with Reid-Brinkley her role in the event.

Shanahan, an assistant professor of communication studies at Fort Hays, was fired for violating the faculty code of ethics and the school’s debate program was suspended.

In an Aug. 22 announcement, Fort Hays President Edward H. Hammond stated, “No one from the tournament staff notified us about the incident last spring, which is a surprise given the scope of what happened. Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but these actions are not acceptable for someone who is representing our university. Professor Shanahan’s conduct falls below the standard established to protect our university, its faculty, students and alumni.”

Hammond called for a stand against declining standards in college debate. “Our society has become increasingly confrontational and uncivil. Our investigation revealed that those ills have also infected college debate. We have a responsibility not only to deal with the specific incident but to stand up against this decline in the standards of college debate,” he said. “If anyone doubts my conclusion, that person should view the entire debate [clip on YouTube].”

In a statement issued the same day, CEDA expressed “deep and profound disappointment by the incident,” adding: “As an organization, we must rely upon member institutions to hire individuals that conduct themselves appropriately and within the standards stated in the CEDA bylaws.”

The CEDA statement expressed respect for Fort Hays’s decision to oust Shanahan, noting that each of its member schools “must hire and staff their programs with faculty that best represent the educational mission of their university” and said members will discuss how to improve curriculum and professional conduct at future competitions.

In Pitt’s statement, which came nearly a month after those made by Fort Hays and CEDA, the University administration agreed that it is appropriate for CEDA to examine ways to improve behavior at its tournaments, adding that Pitt “will look forward to learning the outcome of CEDA’s behavior-improvement initiative.”

— Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 3

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