Noel Selegzi directs the Open Society Youth Initiative’s Global Debates program, which provides support to new and existing debate programs at universities around the world. Global Debates is seeking proposals from student groups and faculty. I spoke with Noel about the program's goals, work, and how Youth Initiatives determines who receives funding.
Most debate programs exist at elite institutions. Will funding target less-resourced institutions? Are elite universities excluded?
Currently, with rare exception, particularly outside of the United States, debate is the domain of elite universities. This is something that we are hoping to change with Global Debates. The criteria we’re using will favor colleges and universities that normally one wouldn’t expect to see with a debate program. We are encouraging community colleges and vocational schools to apply for these grants. However, we are also inviting more elite institutions to apply for funding both to mentor programs at less-resourced institutions and also to do more outreach into the communities they should serve. The debate teams at too many elite institutions are primarily interested in the competitive aspects of the activity. A goal of Global Debates is to engage the students who have the privilege to attend these universities in community outreach. Similarly, we are encouraging these universities to host public debates both on and off campus to engage the broader community in informed public discussion of controversial issues.
What educational institutions beyond formal colleges and universities are eligible for funding? Are local community centers in some countries welcome to apply?
Yes, local community centers are welcome to apply, particularly in places where the formal educational structures make it very difficult for students or faculty to support open discussion and debate. This was how we supported debate in the former Yugoslavia during the Milosevic era and how we continue to support debate in less open societies. One initiative we are particularly happy to support in the Netherlands and Belgium through our partner, the International Debate Education Association, is called “Debat in de Buurt” – “Debate in the Neighborhood.” In this case we make grants to local youth centers in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods that have high numbers of youth in an otherwise aging Europe. These young people have the highest unemployment rates in Western Europe. The focus of Debat in de Buurt is to give youth an opportunity to engage in open and critical debates about feelings of exclusion both from the societies their parents may have migrated from and the societies they were born into but too often feel unwelcome in. That project was nominated by the European Commission for a “Youth in Action” award this year.
How will the Foundations handle applications and interest from universities in countries with authoritarian governments?
Since its inception, the Open Society Youth Initiative has engaged youth in a wide range of countries, both in open societies and in authoritarian countries. We have found that even in less open societies there are young people and educators seeking an opportunity to engage in open discussion and debate. Though in other contexts we try to minimize the amount we spend supporting travel, in less open societies we emphasize giving young people the ability to engage their peers from more open societies in free and open debates. The authorities in many of these countries see debate competition in much the same way they do athletic competition and support their students’ participation in these activities in the hope that they will bring home prizes. What we hope they bring home is more important than a trophy: the firsthand experience of exercising the right to free speech that they are too often denied at home.
Funding will also support the creation of educational materials; an online debate mentorship program; international debate tournaments and competitions; and a Global Debate and Public Policy Challenge. Are these materials, programs, tournaments, etc. already in place or will they would be created from scratch?
Some are already in place, others will be developed from scratch. As much as possible we want to strengthen the existing global debating infrastructure, but at the same time we are looking to fill in gaps. For instance, on an international level, there is currently a paucity of opportunities to debate in languages other than English. It’s for that reason we’re working to support a nascent Mandarin debating league. We’re also looking to promote more research-based debating competitions, which is why we’re funding an inaugural Global Debate and Public Policy Challenge.
How do the Foundations decide which universities and groups receive funding? What sort of criteria will applicants have to satisfy?
Our application forms are online, but the basic criteria we’re going to use is quite simple: will our funding allow young people who might not otherwise have the chance to participate in informed, open debate gain that opportunity. As we see it, debate is a necessary condition for open society. As James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers, “when men exert their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them.” Where there is unanimity of opinion there is neither freedom nor democracy. Every grant we will give aims to maximize the number of young people who have the opportunity to learn to think critically, listen carefully, have access to information, and the ability to speak freely on the controversial issues affecting them and the world in which they live.
How much will the funding be? Will it be small amounts to many universities? Big amounts to a few institutions?
Some student associations are requesting $2,000 while some universities are asking for multi-year grants of $100,000 or more. The sustainability of the programs we support is critical to us. In some cases just a few dollars can establish a sustainable local debate program. In other cases, however, a longer-term investment helps ensure that a culture of critical, open, informed debate develops within a given community or educational institution. We will not be taking a cookie cutter approach in distributing these funds, but rather looking to maximize the long term impact of our investment. We are encouraging prospective grantees to think creatively in their proposals and to consider how best to ensure that the debates that begin with our funding can continue long into the future.