Wiley College may be on the ropes, but the historically black Texas school is betting that being on screen will turn things around. Staff face unpaid furloughs, limited office supplies, and the college hasn’t fielded a debate team in years. But The Great Debaters is already changing that—enrollment is up, the campus has been renovated, and Wal-Mart has endowed a scholarship.
The film, directed by and starring Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey, is inspired by the success of Wiley College's debating team against white competitors in the 1930s. The contributions of Wiley's alumni to racial integration might have caused its downfall, as faculty and students flocked to mainstream institutions; but administrators expect film buzz will help them break even in 2008.