By Robyn Moreno, Assistant Director of Forensics
Last month, the John R. Park Debate Society finished in sixth place (second in the Pac-12 behind Oregon) at the National Parliamentary Debate Association’s National Championship Tournament, the largest intercollegiate debate championships in North America, which featured over 50 universities and colleges. Additionally, the debate society finished sixth (first in the Pac-12) in the season-long rankings maintained by the NPDA. Completing the team’s stellar showing at debate nationals, senior Duncan Stewart and junior Drew Marshall also finished sixth as a competitive team at the elite National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence that featured competition between the top 64 teams in the country.
April 4-5, the team will conclude its 2014-2015 season in competition at the America Forensics Association’s National Individual Events Tournament, where nine students will compete in 17 different events while representing the U. Already, this represents the John R. Park Debate Society’s most successful season in history. However, what many on campus might not know is this most recent success is reflective of a long history of academic debating on the university’s campus.
Academic and public debates have consistently played a central role in the U’s campus life. As early as 1869, the opportunity to study and participate in extracurricular debate societies appeared in the university’s general catalog. In 1873, the inaugural address of the U’s first president, John R. Park, noted the role of academic debating in fostering civic engagement and educational opportunities for the broader community. In 1885, the university formalized its commitment to debate through the creation of the John R. Park Literary and Debating Society and the inauguration of the annual John R. Park Debates that invited members of the on- and off-campus community to participate in vibrant public dialogues. Since then, the University of Utah’s debate team has evolved alongside the formalization of academic debate, moved from the Department of English to the Department of Communication and cultivated a national reputation for competitive and academic excellence.
During the early 20th century, the University of Utah Debate Team played a central role in creating a community of competitive academic debate in the western United States, including Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Texas. In 1972 and 1999, the U hosted the National Debate Tournament, the oldest national tournament in collegiate debate. In the years between 1972 and 1999, former debaters from the U and elsewhere note that the University of Utah was viewed as the premiere institution for academic debating in the western United States, preferred to rivals University of Southern California, University of California-Berkeley and others.
This competitive success also paralleled the academic excellence and valuable professional training offered to participants and graduates of the university’s debate team and societies. Graduates of these programs demonstrate the broad relevance of participation in debate and include: Herbert Maw, former Utah governor; Bob Bennett, former U.S. senator; Randy Dryer, former chair of the University of Utah Board of Regents; Con Psarras, former vice-president and managing editor at KSL News, as well as dozens of attorneys, academics, educators and business leaders.
Today the John R. Park Debate Society continues to enact the vision of John R. Park by providing educational opportunities for students and by fostering civic engagement through the John R. Park Public Debates held each semester. The society is a member of the National Parliamentary Debate Association and the American Forensics Association (AFA), which sanction intercollegiate speech and debate competition. In addition, the U’s program, both because of the breadth of programming it offers and its competitive success, is the premier academic debating society in the Pac-12. The team’s signature contribution to the campus and the broader community are our public outreach efforts. Along with the John R. Park Public Debates, which this past year included a debate and panel discussion on police body cameras in December and another on Salt Lake City’s air quality in February (for video archives, visit debate.utah.edu), the U’s team pursues outreach by providing support to local high schools.
This outreach service is aimed at expanding and supporting opportunities to participate in academic debating in Utah high schools. The students and teachers the team works with and the contact hours provided (over 2,700 hours since 2010) help support local high schools, both directly and indirectly, where students’ opportunities to participate in forensics are limited or unavailable. Among the outreach provided is the annual Beehive Bonanza High School Debate Tournament each September, which is the largest high school debate competition in the state of Utah, and features over 600 students, parents and teachers from high schools in Utah and elsewhere in the western U.S. Each summer the debate society also hosts the Beehive Forensics Institute which, in 2014, provided instruction in academic debating to 80-100 high school students and coaches from more than eight states.
As this year’s competitive season comes to a close, the team is already gearing up for the 2015-2016 season and welcomes students from any major and any year on campus to participate in one or more of our activities. The team would also love to involve faculty, staff and other community members in our outreach.