Four years ago Philosophy Professor Greg Pence, Ph.D., took a small group of students with him to the National Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl championship in Jacksonville, Fla., to observe the competition. Pence was interested in starting and coaching an ethics bowl team at UAB, but he left that day convinced it might be a while before they were ready for the national stage.

Cinderella team? Call them what you will — just make sure to mention “national champs.” In just their second year of competition, Greg Pence, center, and the UAB Ethics Bowl team brought home the gold.
He was wrong.

UAB’s Ethics Bowl Team competed in this year’s national championship in Cincinnati, and in its second year of competition the Blazers walked away as the national champion.

“With two freshmen and only our second appearance, we were the Cinderella team of the 32-team tournament,” Pence says. “I was so proud of how our students blended their science majors with ethical reasoning that the last victories brought tears to my eyes.

“We had thought that getting to the final eight would be enough this year, but we are thrilled to be lucky enough to win it all with such a young team.”

Pence’s squad competed against 31 colleges and universities, and they debated some of today’s most difficult ethical issues.

The topics included various controversial ethics cases taken from current events, including health care for illegal immigrants, the Octomom, legalizing casinos and allowing teachers to carry guns in schools to protect themselves.

UAB had to present one case and counter another in the finals against Weber State. The Blazers presented a case on the ethics of greenbelts, a policy and land-use designation used in planning to retain areas of largely undeveloped, wild or agricultural land surrounding or neighboring urban areas. In the case they refuted, the team argued that a doctor is ethically bound to treat an undocumented Mexican worker who was dying of cervical cancer.

Rachael Rosales, a freshman team member and Mexican-American, countered the final case.

“That last case worked to our advantage,” Pence says. “We argued that undocumented workers pay taxes, and ethically a doctor has to try and save the patient. It played to our strength, and we countered it very well. Emotionally, that’s what won the judges and the audience over to us.”

Members of the UAB Ethics Bowl Team are freshmen Rosales, an Athens native, and Mallick Hossain of Rainbow City, sophomore Chris Graves of Southside and seniors Michael Lester and Ayushe Sharma, both of Huntsville.

Lester and Graves were members of the 2009 team, which finished 12th in the national championships.

Lester says the nerves of all of the team members were definitely spiking before the final match against Weber State. The team goal going into the championship was to improve on this past year’s finish and make it to the top eight. Instead, the Blazers defeated 2009 national champion Indiana University, 2008 semifinalist Westminster College twice and teams from the University of California-Santa Cruz and Carleton College. And at the end of the competition, they found themselves sitting at the big table facing Weber State for the championship.

“It was exciting, and it was a lot of fun,” Lester says. “Weber State was a talented team. We were still a little nervous when it was over and waiting on the results, but I think we more were enjoying the opportunity we had and enjoying the moment.”

Nerves also rattled the young team during the regional competition this past fall, and the stress rose after winning their first three matches.

“I tried to break the tension and have everyone relax a little bit,” says Lester, “so I just told the whole team, ‘Guys, come on. We’re not going to win the national championship. Don’t stress out.’ I have to eat my words, I guess.”

True purpose
Pence says he wanted to start an Ethics Bowl team because he thought the competition was a practical way to engage students in the study of ethics.

“It’s an excellent way of teaching ethics — to force people to make an analysis of a real case,” Pence says. “All of the cases are taken from the news. It’s also a group project that forces people to work together. It’s an exciting intellectual competition. It seems to me that it’s the true purpose of the university and what we’re doing here.”

Team members say the experience has changed their academic life and future in many respects, and they credit Pence for his desire to work with them and see them excel.

“College is a rough adjustment,” Rosales says. “It’s nice to know you have an advocate and someone who believes in you. Even at times when you’re feeling down, you know Dr. Pence believes in you and your abilities because he lets you know. I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to be one of his students.”

All of the students on the team are in the Early Medical School Acceptance Program (EMSAP), which Pence directs, with the exception of Sharma, a philosophy and psychology major. She says Pence treated her like one of his EMSAP students, pushing her to excel.

“He motivated me to do things outside of Ethics Bowl, including studying abroad and applying for scholarships to continue my education,” Sharma says. “He’s actually the person who motivated me to try out for the team, because I wasn’t going to do it.”

“I don’t think any of us really can express how much we feel we owe Dr. Pence,” Lester adds. “He’s changed the course of my life in many ways by guiding me through my undergraduate decisions. He’s helped me move on to the next phase of my life and feel confident and prepared.”

UAB’s team showed that confidence throughout the national championship competition, and won many fans along the way.

In fact, as the competition drew closer to its conclusion, members of the audience began cheering for the Cinderella Blazers.

“I’ve been to four ethics bowls, and I’ve never seen the way the audience reacted to us,” Pence says. “They were very enthusiastic that we won.”

Now the upstart team finds itself as the hunted instead of the hunter for next year, a point not lost on the UAB coach.

“This puts us on the map, and it’s a hard map to get on,” Pence says. “Now the slate is wiped clean for us. We’ll have auditions again and start from scratch, only this time we have a target on our back. We’re the national champions.”