The Daniel K. Inouye Center for Democratic Leadership is an incredible opportunity for the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

More than an impressive public work and archive dedicated to the late senator, the center could serve as vital space for training civic leaders. That potential would be best fulfilled by a debate union.

Debate was once a major part of the university. English professor Arthur Andrews founded the debate and forensics program in 1924, modeling it after the world famous Oxford Union.

inouye center artist drawing

An artist’s rendering of the Daniel K. Inouye Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Debate served as one vehicle for training the democratic leaders who would supplant the territorial oligarchs. Distinguished alumni include Spark Matsunaga, Patsy Mink and George Ariyoshi.

A debate union also comports with the late-Sen. Inouye’s own political philosophy and legacy.

For debaters, talking is crucial, but so is listening. However appealing a given speech may be, the opposition will still be heard; that’s the difference between debate and advertising.

Indeed, debaters often must argue against their personal beliefs — not to destroy all principles, but to found them on better grounds than prejudice or complacency.

Sen. Inouye never wavered in his essential political convictions. “I happen to believe that there is a deep and fundamental difference between the two major parties in our country,” he wrote in his 1967 autobiography Journey to Washington.

“The difference between them is that the Republicans’ chief concern is property, things, what we own; the Democrats worry about people — what we are.”

He stood up to official corruption in clear and uncompromising terms, serving with distinction on the Senate Watergate committee and chairing the Iran-Contra hearings. Yet politics never prevented Sen. Inouye from forming deep friendships across the aisle, notably with Bob Dole and Ted Stevens.

Nor did he ever feel the need to impugn the motives of political opponents. “[F]or the most part, members who identified as tea party members, they’re good people,” he said in a 2011 interview with Civil Beat. “They’re honest. They believe in what they’re doing. We just disagree, that’s all.”

His civic grace deserves equal memorial with his battlefield gallantry.

After decades of inactivity, the Debate and Forensics Society at the University of Hawaii was re-established in 2008. Since then, the organization has succeeded despite inconsistent support from the university.

Over this winter break, it sent two teams to the World Universities Debating Championship in Kuala Lumpur. It also hosts an on-island competition each semester for local colleges. The society leads training workshops in support of the new debate programs at Windward and Leeward Community Colleges. Members also regularly volunteer as judges for the Hawaii Speech League and the Chevron Keiki Festival.

Will the halls echo with the silence and hushed voices befitting a museum? Or will they ring with the impassioned civic debate that Inouye participated in as our senator?

The departure of faculty adviser Robert Boller places the future of the organization in jeopardy.  Because Hawaii is geographically isolated from most other universities, travel expenses account for most of the team’s costs.

Funding remains patchwork and limited. Students have often paid up front or even out-of-pocket for the chance to participate in top-caliber competitions. Boller’s efforts to have the team established as a line item in the university budget similar to athletics were rejected.

The Lawrence Debate Union at the University of Vermont offers a compelling model for Hawaii. In 1899, Edwin W. Lawrence founded the union as a student. He later donated to the university, creating an endowment for the debate team and establishing a professorial chair to oversee the program.

Alfred Snider, the current occupant, has maintained Vermont’s national and international competitiveness. He has also assisted new debate programs in more than 45 countries. In 2013, he helped the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University jointly host the Pan-Pacific Tournament.

Yvonne Szeto’s plan for the Daniel K. Inouye Center features an airy design meant to capture the essence of the Manoa breeze.

However, the mockups cannot communicate the internal sound of the space. That’s left to us.

Will the halls echo with the silence and hushed voices befitting a museum? Or will they ring with the impassioned civic debate that Inouye participated in as our senator?

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