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Release: Dec 2, 1999

Top-ranked UI debate team shows intercollegiate sport is still highly popular

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Intercollegiate debate programs, once a place for partisan pep rallies between schools, have given way to other popular spectator sports. However, among its participants, debating -- particularly at the University of Iowa, which has a top three nationally ranked program -- continues to be as popular today as it was 54 years ago when 29 teams met for the first national debate tournament.

An expected 150 to 200 up-and-coming debaters will meet Dec. 3-4 for the Iowa High School Forensic League Tournament to be held at the English Philosophy Building, says David Hingstman, assistant professor of communications studies and faculty advisor for the A. Craig Baird Debate Forum. Hingstman says the two-day competition will allow the UI coaches to make recruiting notes about some of the state's best debaters.

The UI program as a whole ranks just behind the perennially large programs at Emory and Liberty Universities and annually jockeys among programs at 146 other universities for the top spot. After the first semester of competition, the UI's top team of Kristin Langwell and Andy Ryan ranks second nationally. Overall, the UI has an impressive record with 24 national tournament qualifiers in the last 28 years. Since 1986 the UI has qualified 14 consecutive times, and the team is ranked number one in its district, District Four.

Hingstman says policy debating, one of many debate forms and the category in which the UI has earned its rank, has become more complex. Today's topics require students to have an in-depth knowledge about global issues, such as this year's policy debate topic: Should the U.S. federal government remove all or nearly all economic sanctions against the governments of Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and/or North Korea. Because of their ability to sustain student interest over an entire year such topics contrast with those that once drew campus audiences. Also, the focus of competition has changed from single debates against other universities to large regional and national tournaments with many schools participating, says Paul Bellus, UI team coordinator.

The UI's 16-member competitive team's success hasn't rated much public mention. But national policy debate team members seniors Langwell and Ryan, and other members' preparation for tournaments can require as much training and dedication as required by physically demanding collegiate sports.

Team member Clay Cleveland, who typically carries 12 to 15 semester hours and works between 20 and 35 hours per week, has competed in 40 debates, against teams such as the University of Southern California, Dartmouth, Harvard and Northwestern Universities.

What is popularly known about debating is that it challenges students to think critically and to carefully present their oral arguments. What is lesser known about intercollegiate debate programs, Bellus says, is the typically excellent academic performance of UI forum members. All UI debate team members who stay with the program for four years graduate, and virtually all of them earn post-graduate degrees.

Emeritus UI professor of communication studies Sam Becker, in support of Georgetown University's program, recently wrote: "It is no accident that such a large percentage of outstanding leaders in our country have been high school or college debaters." A short list would include President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Debate enhances students' opportunities to perform academically," says Bellus, whose debate coaching resume includes 12 years at the high school and five years at the collegiate levels.

As team members become more skilled at the art of finessing the finer points of a topic, it sometimes becomes obvious which is the inferior team, Cleveland says.

"You can gauge whether you're giving a world view, and you realize one team comes closer to distinguishing their story," Cleveland says, adding that various debate team members "scout" the judges, in an attempt to learn a judge's predisposition.

For students who would like to participate in other forms of debate, the Iowa program can accommodate them, Bellus says. The A. Craig Baird Debate Forum has a growing program in campus audience debates, international debates, and value debates.

Intercollegiate debate programs also reach out to help improve high school debating programs. Each summer, the UI offers as many as 150 high school students from across 46 states a chance to learn more about policy debating. The UI is also home to the nation's premiere Lincoln-Douglas High School Debate Institute, a program held annually in June that teaches students how to debate value questions. Of the 450-plus applicants who apply to compete, only 190 are selected and more than one-third of them are high school valedictorians, Hingstman says.