Latest essay contest topic calls on Marshall students to examine controversial speakers issue

By Carrie Salls | Jul 19, 2017

HUNTINGTON – An anonymous benefactor’s gift started a tradition at Marshall University in 2009 that calls on students to showcase their research, debate and writing skills in an essay contest that honors retired Cabell Circuit Judge Dan O’Hanlon.

The result of the benefactor’s contribution to the school’s College of Liberal Arts is the Dan O’Hanlon Essay Competition, and Patricia Proctor, director of Marshall’s Simon Perry Center for Constitutional Democracy, thinks it is a worthwhile venture for all students.

“This is a great opportunity to practice skills that will help you in your future regardless of your chosen profession -- developing an argument and supporting it with evidence, and practicing your writing skills,” Proctor told The West Virginia Record.

In addition to a chance to win $1,000 for the top essay or a $500 second prize, Proctor said the winners usually garner newspaper and television coverage, and the contest looks good on a resume.

The topics often center on the students’ interest in prominent, newsworthy current issues, Proctor said, and this year’s topic – asking essayists what limitations, if any, should there be for invited speakers on college campuses – is no different.

“This year’s topic focuses on an issue currently receiving much attention throughout the country, as various incidents occur involving speakers at universities across the nation,” Proctor said. “Students are typically motivated by prominent issues in the news that relate to things they understand - here, the campus environment.”

Proctor said she is not aware of any protests involving speakers at Marshall, however.

To get potential contest entrants thinking about their stance on the topic, the university said in a release detailing the contest guidelines that “the debate is playing out on campuses across the country, with some saying that free expression mandates tolerating offensive views and others responding that those expressing views hostile to people because of race, national origin, gender or sexual orientation, should not be tolerated as part of campus life.”

Specifically, the university asked the contestants to focus on the issue from the standpoint of public colleges and universities, “which have more rigorous First Amendment obligations than private ones.”

Proctor said a panel of five professors, typically from the department of political science and history, judges the contest. And, she said, agreement with the writer’s argument is by no means a requirement.

“It is not unheard of for several judges to disagree with the answer the winner reaches but to recognize that the winner wrote the best essay, not only in terms of the writing, but also with respect to how the essay is supported by the research and the writer’s reasoning ability,” Proctor said.

For example, Proctor said the first-place and second-place winners in the 2016 competition “reached opposite conclusions, but both won prizes.”

Before he was a judge, O'Hanlon taught at Marshall for many years and served as the chairman of the criminal justice department.

In 2011, Marshall established the Simon Perry Center for Constitutional Democracy, which has administered the contest since 2012, Proctor said.

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