Rutgers debate team beats Harvard, places second at nationals
The Rutgers University Debate Union took second place at the 2014 American Parliamentary Debate Association’s National Championship held from April 18 to 20 in Philadelphia, surpassing prestigious, private schools boasting of past victories.
Storey Clayton, coach of RUDU, said the team has been recognized as the first team since 2003 to make the National Finals from a public institution.
“We had never cracked the top 25 in the rankings of our league until 2009 to 2010 season when we finished 24th. Since then, we have been 5th, 9th, 3rd and 5th again in the overall regular season standings,” Clayton said in an email.
These satisfactory results can be justified by a change of attitude within the RUDU. In particular, the team focused on weekly trainings and preparations to become respectful competitors without being intimidated by the teams’ reputation from private schools.
“Our team is a real testament to that. We work longer hours and harder than almost any of our rivals. We practice several rounds a week for every competitor when many other teams only do one or two,” he said.
Clayton said his goal is to maximize their potential as critical thinkers and persuaders.
Nick Hansen, public relations chair of RUDU, said the topic for the final round against Yale University was a challenge to the portrayal of the gay rights advocate and councilman, Harvey Milk in a biographical movie “Milk,” released in 2008.
He also emphasized the importance of partnership as necessary to reach the desired result during the debates.
“I think that close interaction and teamwork with a debate partner is one of the most rewarding aspects of the activity,” said Hansen, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
Clayton said the team members regularly attend tournaments and practices to improve their communication skills while learning the weaknesses of their opponents.
Because the competition features two teams of two debaters for each round — the government team and the opposition team — debaters must be able to provide a logical argument on one side of an issue which might not correspond to their personal mindset.
Therefore, the debates encourage participants to be open-minded by challenging or confirming their ideas after having critically analyzed both sides of an issue, he said.
The basic techniques of persuasion and debate can be learned through practice and perseverence, he said.
“Debate is not an in-born talent,” he said. “ I am a firm believer in the idea that anyone can debate well as long as they put in the time and effort necessary to improve.”
Sean Leonard, vice president of RUDU, said issues of economic, social and historic nature are among those regularly discussed. The debating tournaments established limitations on the case proposal which must concern accessible and public issues.
“The government team has the privilege of selecting the case and presenting it to the opposition team, which has a limited amount of time to prepare a counterpoint,” said Leonard, a sophomore at the School of Arts and Sciences.
Brian Householder, director of Undergraduate Studies in Communication, said the School of Communication and Information and Student Life support RUDU by co-sponsoring public debates on campus and other debate opportunities such as the Free Speech Week.
Additionally, the department sponsored a debate practice course taught by the coach or the assistant coach of RUDU to promote the debating competition as a valuable co-curricular activity while allowing them to recruit new members from the class, Householder said.
Householder discussed the historical reduction of the field of communication to basic skills of debating and public speaking.
“It is common knowledge that communication involves expertise in public speaking, debate and critical argumentation. But it is much more than that,” he said. “It concerns health, family structure and public relations.”
The University’s mission is to train students at being citizens of their community while facing diverse mindsets and backgrounds, he said. Therefore, RUDU exposes students to a variety of subject matters contributing to create informed and flexible minds.
“Debate is the closest thing to sports. If the Rutgers football team beats Michigan, the outcome will be surprising because of the prior expectations,” he said. “Everybody likes that underdog success story.”
A previous version of this article stated that Rutgers defeated Yale University and that the APDA nationals were held in Arizona.