The Seawolf Debate team challenges race-based admissions

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Racism, despite substantial progress over past decades, still permeates the landscape of American culture. It has existed throughout human history and many people around the globe still have a long way to go before diminishing thoughts of hatred based on skin color, language and customs.

Young debaters at UAA are not retreating from discussing race-based issues, however. Select members of the Seawolf Speech and Debate team will debate race-based preference for university admissions on Thursday, Sept. 16. The debate will be followed by a faculty forum and facilitated public discussion on affirmative action.

The event is part of a series of public policy debates and discussions sponsored by the UAA Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence (CAFE).

“There’s a weeklong program about eliminating racism in Anchorage that same week, so we are a small part of a much larger program on race and race relations in the city,” UAA professor and debate team coach Steve Johnson said. “We traditionally work with the Center to come up with a policy debate every year and we are cooperating with them again this year tackling the issue of racism.”

To prepare for the debate, Johnson is discussing some of the controversies surrounding race-based admissions to universities at great length to the chosen debaters. They are currently plotting out the best arguments for the notion and the best arguments against the notion amongst themselves to illuminate the issue.

The debate should start public discussion rather than conclude it, stated Johnson.

“Either side is not judging its success on whether it wins or loses. We don’t have that judgment,” Johnson said. “We are using debate to open up the issues for an audience and then have a discussion.”

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For four years CAFE has been using this format of discussion. Generally, participation from the public is split among individuals asking questions, individuals articulating their own beliefs and individuals commenting on what others have said.

Despite the openness that Johnson is hoping the debate will encourage, the issue is not being taken lightly, and senior members of the debate team were chosen to partake.

As a freshman, Nick Byrne was asked by Johnson to join the debate team. Now a senior, Byrne is well spoken and lax when referring to his involvement with the team.

Every successful democracy has an outlet or forum that encourages dialogue rather than partisanship, according to Byrne.

“If you were to look at a country that utilizes a parliament, they have an ingrained idea of dialogue that is a far more noble pursuit than simply trying to overpower another person’s opinion,” Byrne said. “The U.S. is entering a phase where the news cycle is dominated by force of opinion. This is antithetical to debate, and if we had stronger communities of people actually sharing ideas and examining how those ideas weigh against one another, we would be better off.”

There is a misconception that debate is liberal in nature; that the social good is always strived for. The core of debate is sharing ideas, and effectively and intelligently discussing those ideas, stated Byrne.

The structure of the debate is based on the British Parliamentary Debate format, which is the most widely used intercollegiate competitive debating format in the world. It is used by Oxford and Cambridge and is often altered to accommodate particular needs and circumstances.

“The first speaker will speak on behalf of the motion. He or she will have seven minutes to make their best case, and they will be followed up by alternating cases by the proposition and the opposition,” Johnson said.

From 1995 to 2005 the debate team earned national recognition while on the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) circuit. The most notable accomplishment of this time period is Ben Garcia and Chris Richter’s 2002 National Championship win. The two UAA students defeated over 200 other U.S. teams to be ranked the best debate team in the nation.

The program was refocused from NPDA to International Style Debate in January 2005, and the team quickly gained international recognition. The change was made because the debaters wanted to test themselves against the best in the world, stated Johnson.

“The style of debate we had been using previously was widely practiced in the U.S., but only the U.S.,” Johnson said. “We were looking for a bigger challenge, and I—personally–as the faculty director of the program was looking for an opportunity for students from Alaska to interact with their peers from around the world.”

The team’s focus is currently fixed on the World Universities Debating Championships. Just earlier this year the debate team attained a twelfth place rating in the world based on its cumulative success at the last five championships. This ranking places the team second in the U.S.—behind Yale and tied with Harvard.

Byrne attributes the team’s success to its head coach as well as the cohesiveness of the whole team.

“Steve’s a phenomenal coach,” Byrne said. “He’s one of the smartest and most talented communications professors I’ve ever know. We also have a wealth of talented and dedicated kids that contribute to the team’s success.”