April 01, 2010

Debate team again excels on national stage

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Southern Illinois University Carbondale Debate Team returned this week in triumph from its final tournament of the season, the national championships.

For the third year in a row, the Saluki debate team finished the year in the “Final Four” of the National Parliamentary Debate Association, the most prestigious debate organization in the country. In fact, two SIUC teams finished in the top 10 -- the only university in the country to claim this distinction.

The team of Brandon Merrell, a junior from Snohomish, Wash., majoring in economics and political science, and Kevin Calderwood, a senior from Chesterfield, Mo., majoring in political science, finished third. The team of Richard Flores, a senior from El Paso, Texas, and Mike Selck, a freshman from Blue Springs, Mo., majoring in speech communication, finished ninth.

“To put this in perspective, SIUC had two teams in the top 10 in the country out of more than 1,000 debate teams competing at different tournaments throughout the year,” Todd Graham, director of debate, said. “That is phenomenal. And it wasn’t just at nationals where we excelled. Our SIUC teams won a total of six tournaments this year against more than 300 teams at each tournament.”

Texas Tech University and Azusa Pacific University hosted the national championships this year. The two-week tournament, jointly presented by the National Parliamentary Debate Association and the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence, includes major players in the debate universe, many of them universities much larger and fielding more debate duos than SIUC.

“Prestigious universities with great debate teams are not in short supply,” Graham said. “We had to out-debate them all -- teams such as Berkeley and Rice -- in order to finish so high in the national championship. With this year’s finish, and the previous two years in which we’ve been national champions and second-place respectively, we’ve cemented our place as one of the best debate programs in the country.”

Graham gives the praise to his students, calling them “some of the brightest, best-researched, most well-rounded students in the country.”

Graham explained the continuing success of SIUC’s debate teams in simple terms.

“SIUC debaters are intellects,” he said. “We begin with terrific students, and these students work harder to learn about complex issues than just about everyone else in the country.”

He certainly sets a vigorous pre-nationals schedule for them. Graham noted that his debate students averaged 14 hours of research and study each day during a nine-day run, while many other students took a spring break holiday.

And why is that? In the parliamentary debate style, topics are announced 20 minutes before the debate. In addition, debate teams don’t know if they will argue for or against a given statement until that time. Preparing possible arguments long before that last 20-minute scramble is vital. A well-rounded knowledge of world events is equally crucial.

“Think how knowledgeable our SIUC debate students are,” Graham said, obviously proud of his teams. “They walk into a debate only 20 minutes after learning their topic and they beat teams from all over the country on subjects ranging from, ‘Fire the treasury secretary,’ ‘Have the Arab League intervene in Yemen,’ ‘Have the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries adopt a common currency,’ ‘Propose that the U. S. should decrease mining rights under the Central American Free Trade Agreement,’ ‘Have the European Union expel Greece from the Eurozone,’ or ‘Have the U. S. abolish the doctrine of corporate personhood.’”

The success throws SIUC into the spotlight, Graham noted.

“People were coming up to us from all over and saying how much they respect SIUC for being so consistent at this important academic endeavor,” he said.

Graham had extra praise for Calderwood, who has been part of all three of SIUC’s top four teams.

“In my opinion, Kevin Calderwood is the best debater in the history of the National Parliamentary Debate Association,” he said, noting he doubts any debater in the near future -- or even the distant future -- will be able to touch some of Calderwood’s accomplishments.

Calderwood’s record includes a national championship, national championship runner-up, 11 tournament wins, top debate team ranking, top debater ranking, and an overall personal win-loss record of 57-3.

Graham is already looking forward to assembling next year’s team. He’s keenly aware that half his team is graduating. However, half is returning, and Graham described them as “scary good.”

“We have a reputation to uphold, and we hope to continue our success,” Graham said.

This year’s national champion and reserve champions are from Texas Tech University and the University of Colorado.