Dr. Edward H. Hammond, president of Fort Hays State University, announced today that the university had dismissed Dr. Bill Shanahan, assistant professor of communication studies and coach of the school's debate program, for violating the university's faculty code of ethics.
Shanahan became notorious over the past two weeks after a video was posted on the popular YouTube Internet site that showed him in a wild confrontation with the debate coach from the University of Pittsburgh during a Cross Examination Debate Association event that was held during the spring 2008 semester at Wichita State University.
FHSU just learned of Shanahan's actions when the video was posted the first week of August. "No one from the tournament staff notified us about the incident last spring, which is a surprise given the scope of what happened," President Hammond said. "Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but these actions are not acceptable for someone who is representing our university."
The president continued: "Professor Shanahan's conduct falls below the standard established to protect our university, its faculty, students and alumni. As a representative of FHSU, he had a duty of care that was seriously breached by his behavior."
"If the coach of one of our athletic teams became angry and 'mooned' officials, student athletes and fans during a sports event, he or she would no longer be a coach at Fort Hays State University," President Hammond said. "Standards for our debate program are certainly just as high."
The YouTube video showed Shanahan in an angry, prolonged, obscenity-laced shouting match with University of Pittsburgh debate coach Shanara Reid-Brinkley following a debate between FHSU and Towson State of Maryland. The FHSU team had exercised its prerogative under the debate rules to dismiss Reid-Brinkley as a judge of the FHSU-Towson State debate. Both the Towson State debate team and Reid-Brinkley said the decision to remove a black female judge was an act of white hegemony, which is to say an exercise of the power whites enjoy over people of color. At one point early in the post-debate argument, Shanahan turned his back to Reid-Brinkley, pulled down his shorts and bent over to expose his underwear-clad backside.
The president also stated that the FHSU debate program was suspended, effective immediately, until problems were addressed at the national level. He said steps were being taken so as not to disadvantage the FHSU debate students in the coming year.
The president said it was equally important for FHSU to take a stand against the declining standards of college debate. "We are an institute of higher learning, and this incident provides a valuable 'teaching moment,' " he said. "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."
"I was a college debater," Dr. Hammond said. "I place high value on college debate as an exceptional learning opportunity. However, I had no idea that college debate had degenerated into the kind of displays that we witnessed when we watched CEDA events on the Internet. College debate has changed greatly. The lack of decorum and the lack of civility are not compatible with the educational standards at FHSU, and I doubt they are compatible with the educational standards at most universities."
He added, "If anyone doubts my conclusion, that person should view the entire debate, which was laced with four-letter words, a lack of personal respect and a lack of civil discourse."
President Hammond said he knew college debate was an intense and grueling activity, but all participants must remain in control and should pursue their points through civil and respectful discourse. "Debaters and coaches often speak with great passion," he said, "but the kind of debate being used today in much of college debate falls short of our educational standards."
The president said it also was important to commend Shanahan for the good things he accomplished at FHSU. "He led our debate team of Joe Ramsey and Jason Regnier to the Cross Examination Debate Association National Championship in April 2002 in California. He also has been a provocative teacher who allowed, even encouraged, dissenting opinions from students in his classroom," Dr. Hammond said. "He was highly esteemed by his students and his debaters. Furthermore, while he and I do not share the same opinion about the standards that should guide college debate, there is no one who is more dedicated to college debate than Bill Shanahan. Also, while he clearly reacted in an inappropriate manner, I understand why Mr. Shanahan was outraged by the not-so-veiled accusations of racism. During his 10 years at FHSU, I have known Bill to be a fervent champion of the underdog and racial equality."
Finally, the president spoke to criticism that the university was not acting quickly enough. "Our provost, Dr. Larry Gould, launched an investigation of the incident just as soon as we heard about the video on the Internet. No matter how compelling the video was, we believed Bill Shanahan had a right to tell his side of the story. The public outcry was understandable and we took seriously those who spoke both for and against Dr. Shanahan, but ultimately we made our decision based on the full set of facts that we gathered in our investigation. I would also point out that some of the media reports contained glaring inaccuracies about facts such as where the debate had taken place and details about Professor Shanahan's employment at FHSU. We were not about to let a rush to judgment cause us to make decisions based on faulty information. I make no apology for the careful, deliberate manner in which we considered what should be done."
"I greatly appreciate the strong support I have received from FHSU over the last 10 years in the fullest tradition of academic freedom and the outpouring of support and concern expressed by countless colleagues, students and former students," Shanahan said. "I am terribly sorry that my actions reflected poorly on the University," he explained. "However, they must be judged in the unique context of college debate, marked by its passion and rigorous intellectual engagement." Shanahan concluded: "I hope this incident does not detract from the incredible work done by Fort Hays State debate over the last decade or my other contributions to FHSU, which are far greater than a 9-minute YouTube clip."