SMU Students Become ‘Great Debaters’

It’s not a topic for debate: SMU debaters have impressed judges with their verbal dexterity and quick thinking at competitions throughout the country. This is the program’s first season after a four-year hiatus.

The topic for the 2008-09 intercollegiate debate season focused on whether the United States should eliminate agricultural subsidies for biofuels.

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SMU junior Alex McGregor (right) listens while Wiley College students Shakeisha Coleman and Tristan Love make their point at the debate between the two schools in February.

Team members Tyler Murray ’12 and Brittany Ross ’11 finished fifth in the novice division at the University of Miami’s Hurricane Debates in late January. During preliminary rounds, SMU defeated Vanderbilt, regarded as one of the top three teams in the tournament.

Murray and Deanna Vella ’10 took home third and fourth place awards for extemporaneous speaking at the University of Houston’s Lone Star Swing speech and debate tournament in February.

The SMU team comprises students from the Division of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs (CCPA) in Meadows School of the Arts. CCPA majors are required to participate in mock trial, speech or debate. The program is also open to students from outside CCPA who want to participate.

“Debate provides a foundation for critical thinking that cuts across all disciplines,” says CCPA Chair Mark McPhail, who created the program with José Bowen, dean of the Meadows School.

The team is coached by Ben Voth, associate professor and director of Forensics and Debate, and Christopher Salinas, assistant professor and assistant director of Forensics and Debate.

“Debate should be seen as an important and fundamental civic value,” Voth says. “It’s essential for us to practice the skills of debate both as a university and a society.”

This season, the team has traveled to seven competitions, including the Novice Nationals at Towson University in Maryland and the National Junior Division Debate Tournament in Kansas City.

SMU also faced off twice against students from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, whose 1935 debate team was the subject of the feature film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington. SMU traveled to Wiley for the first of the two encounters on January 23, while Wiley came to the Hilltop for a rematch in the Meadows School’s O’Donnell Auditorium February 25.

The host school won each of the debates.

The Wiley visit fulfilled an invitation extended 74 years ago for the schools to debate at SMU. Though it did not take place at the time, the proposed debate is mentioned in the film. It would have marked one of the first such competitions between students from predominantly African-American and white colleges.

Vella, SMU’s team president, says debating has given her greater confidence as a student and skills she can use in any workplace. “It has made me a quicker thinker and a better researcher.”

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