The University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom held a debate in the Michigan League Wednesday between popular conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and University alum Bill Ayers, a liberal activist turned education professor at the University of Chicago.
LSA sophomore Grant Strobl, president of the University’s Young Americans for Freedom, called the debate the “ultimate fight between the left and right.”
The debate was moderated by LSA Dean Andrew Martin, each debater had 10 minutes to give opening remarks and five minutes to rebut before opening the debate to pre-selected student-submitted questions as well as an audience Q&A session. The event drew almost 500 attendees.
Before the debate, LSA freshman John Sack said that he was interested to hear what D’Souza and Ayers had to say, and was hopng for a lively, healthy dialogue.
The debate covered a variety of issues, but specifically focused on American foreign policy in the Middle East, economic mobility and education policy.
Throughout the debate, D’Souza frequently pivoted back to the issue of individual economic freedom. This, he said, is one of the most important issues to him because of his personal experience as an immigrant who arrived in the country with only $500. D’Souza called the freedom to pursue financial wealth through free enterprise a hallmark of the American Dream, and suggested students get stipends to attend universities and colleges.
In response to D’Souza, Ayers questioned the United States’ commitment to allocating its budget to military engagements abroad instead of devoting more spending to make education more accessible for all students.
Attendees often cheered in agreement with both speakers. D’Souza drew raucous applause when he stated that health care costs kept rising because of the high number of people who rely upon publicly funded health care and the large tax burden this poses to the average taxpayer.
“The guy who is getting the benefit is not the guy who is paying for it,” he said.
Ayers’ biggest applause from the crowd came when he spoke about privilege throughout the country.
“We, as a democracy, as a people, ought to say that whatever the most privileged and wisest parents have for their children, we should have for our community’s children,” he said.
Ayers also emphasized the important role of education in a healthy democracy several times during the debate.
One question submitted by an anonymous student directed to both speakers was: “If you could have been one of the framers of our Constitution, what would you have changed?”
D’Souza answered that he would have reinforced the built-in checks and balances that help curb the power of the government. In response, Ayers simply stated that he would have changed two things: abolished slavery and given women the right to vote.
Following the three student-submitted questions, Dean Martin opened the floor to any attendee who wished to ask the debaters a question. The topics of these questions ranged from the Flint water crisis to the Black Lives Matter movement.
On the topic of the Flint water crisis, Ayers said Gov. Rick Snyder (R) should be driven from office for his failure in the matter. He called the incident a “catastrophic example of government being run like a business.”
When the debate concluded, each debater received a standing ovation the audience and D’Souza and Ayers both were approached by dozens of fans and critics when they left the stage.
In an interview, D’Souza described the debate as “more substantive” than another debate held between him and Ayers, at his alma mater, Dartmouth College. He stated his desire for liberal universities to be more open to dialogue from conservative students and to be more vigilant to protect the right to free speech. He called the undergraduate experience “a stage of life where you are learning,” and said he felt political activism on campuses to be less important than learning from one’s peers and developing personal political beliefs.
Ayers said in an interview after that there was only one area that he wished had been further discussed — climate change.
“Climate change is one area where you can see ideology trumping reality,” he said. “The problem with ideology is that it can be helpful as a guide for thinking but can also be a prison and a trap.”
Strobl said he was pleased with the discourse between the D’Souza and Ayers, as well as the enthusiastic involvement from the crowd.
“I was really happy with how the night went,” he said. “The debate could not have gone any better, especially because both speakers were unafraid to take on the tough issues. I think that is what the campus needs.”