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October 30, 2014

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UNLV finally hits the top 10; its debate team is nationally ranked

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Mona Shield Payne

Debate judge Ian Beier takes notes as senior Michael Eisenstadt presents arguments while practicing in a mock debate with the UNLV Debate team Monday, Feb. 1, 2012, in Las Vegas.

UNLV Debate ranked in Top 10

Junior Christian Bato presents arguments on the side of the affirmative during a mock debate on Launch slideshow »

NDT's Top 10 Varsity Debate Team Rankings Fall 2011

The National Debate Tournament rankings are released each spring and fall, and includes overall, varsity, community college and regional standings. UNLV is No. 1 in its region, and 17th in overall rankings nationally. Its varsity debate team is ranked 10th in the nation, tied with Kansas State. Rankings are based on a point system according to team results in tournaments.

    1. Northwestern University
    2. University of Michigan
    3. Liberty University
    4. Missouri State University
    5. Oklahoma University
    6. University of Kansas
    7. University of Texas
    8. Wayne State University
    9. Missouri-Kansas City University
    10. Kansas State University
    10. University of Las Vegas Nevada

Christian Bato ambles up to a blue plastic bin sitting atop a wooden table — a makeshift lectern — sets his timer, takes a deep breath and starts reading from his laptop.

Really fast.

"Resolved: The United States federal government ought to substantially increase local governance assistance for democratic capacity-building to Shaykhs and the Yemeni Youth Movement in the Republic of Yemen."

GASP!

Words shoot out from the 20-year-old college senior’s pursed lips at a rapid-fire rate of nearly 400 words per minute, more than twice the speed of a normal human conversation. Bato sustains this breakneck pace for nine straight minutes — only stopping every once in a while to gasp and rub his hands together.

Welcome to the world of competitive collegiate debate, an academic endeavor steeped in tradition that attracts thousands of students at prestigious colleges across the country to participate in this game of argumentative chess.

Yet this practice debate round isn’t in the great wooden halls of Princeton or the redbrick buildings of Harvard. This is UNLV, which as of this semester ranks among the top 10 debate programs in the country.

Yes, you heard right. The National Debate Tournament — the Super Bowl of debate, as one participant called it — has ranked UNLV’s Sanford I Berman Debate Team 10th in the nation among some 150 colleges and universities.

Cornell is ranked 15th. Harvard is 45th and Dartmouth, 48th. That fancy university in neighboring California … Stanford? Well, it’s ranked a lowly 79th.

UNLV’s high ranking among the nation’s elite schools sounds especially impressive when you consider the fact that this Las Vegas institution of higher education didn’t even have a debate team five years ago.

In 1998, UNLV eliminated its debate program amid budget cuts. (Yes, there were budget cuts even back then.) The team was resurrected in 2007 through a $1 million endowment given to the university by the Berman family, major benefactors to a number of Western colleges.

How does one explain UNLV’s meteoric rise to the top 10 rankings in five short years?

It’s just hard work and dedication, according to Jacob Thompson, director of UNLV’s debate program. The 36-year-old adjunct professor of communication studies was hired in 2007 to lead the university’s debate team to academic prominence.

Click to enlarge photo

Sophomore Alex Velto takes a deep breath while speaking 300-400 words per minute while practicing with the UNLV Debate team Monday, Feb. 1, 2012, in Las Vegas.

“Our goal is to craft a team that is consistently ranked among the top 10 teams (in the nation) and wins national championships,” he said, his eyes ablaze with passion usually reserved for UNLV men’s basketball fans. “It was a challenge to get this team off the ground, but arriving at the top 10 means that this team has been established.

“Almost nothing feels better than beating the Harvard team.”

Thompson — a lanky fellow who began debating at a Michigan high school two decades ago — was born with a competitive gene but lacked an athletic counterpart, he said. At the urging of a speech teacher, he joined his school’s debate team and was hooked immediately to the fast-paced and philosophical rhetoric.

“I’m a competitive person, and this was a good competitive outlet,” he said. “I was addicted from day one.”

During competitions, each team of two debaters engages in a two-hour “policy debate” on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues. Speed becomes key for these debaters, as they try to cram as many arguments into a nine-minute speech as possible.

“Debate is tough. You face a lot of adversity,” Thompson said. “So many Americans are turned off because of partisanship or apathy. Debate is about taking a stance, advocating for the things you believe in and being engaged and participating in democracy.”

After his high school and college debate career, Thompson became a debate coach and professor. He came to UNLV five years ago and immediately began whipping his team into shape for the mental sport of debate.

At first, Thompson’s team was relegated to a small room adjacent to the women’s locker rooms. Today, his team enjoys a slightly larger space on the third floor of a campus science building to prepare for about 14 national competitions across the country at schools like Northwestern and Wake Forest.

The team of 14, mostly male, UNLV students carries on a grueling regimen of research and practice, racking upwards of 40 hours of preparation each week, Thompson said. Throughout August — before competitions began — debaters were researching every day for eight hours, even on weekends, he said.

“These debaters are some of the best researchers on campus,” he said. “They do the work equivalent of two to three masters theses per year.”

All the extra work produced — two gigabytes of data, the equivalent of 250 pounds of paper research — is astounding considering the student demographics of the team, Thompson said.

Click to enlarge photo

A monitor is used to highlight argumentative points in a speech read at 300-400 words per minute by freshman Will Pregman while practicing in a mock debate with the UNLV Debate team Monday, Feb. 1, 2012, in Las Vegas.

Unlike some debaters at more affluent colleges, many of the students participating in UNLV debate are debate scholarship recipients, earning between $1,000 and $5,000 each semester. (They are paid through a $1 million scholarship foundation, endowed again by the Bermans.)

Other students work part-time jobs to bridge the gap between scholarships and grant money. And of course, all debaters are full-time students at UNLV, bound by grades, terms papers and exams.

To illustrate these debaters’ dedication, you ought to look no further than Michael Eisenstadt, a fifth-year senior at UNLV who was among the first members of Thompson’s debate team.

The 22-year-old Green Valley High School graduate is lucky if he sleeps six hours a night after juggling 25 hours of class, 20 hours of retail work and 40 hours of debate preparation each week. Yet he relishes the chance at upsetting debaters from some of the nation’s top schools.

“Being the underdogs makes us work harder and practice harder than our competition,” he said. “It’s definitely exciting when we can win against these big schools. It shows it doesn’t matter what your background is. We can win against the best of the best.”

Thompson agreed. All the hard work from this scrappy team from Las Vegas made making the top 10 ranking all the more sweet for his debaters, he said.

“I was proud,” he said of his reaction when he heard about his team’s ranking. “It’s so gratifying to see something we’ve worked so hard on come to fruition. I’m just really happy for the students.”

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  1. YES!!!

  2. Now this is a UNLV ranking I'm proud of, great job Rebels!!!!

  3. Nice

  4. Wonderful, I'm so proud of our debate team!