This new team’s potential isn’t up for debate

(L-R) Professor Robert Boller, Nitz-Fa Dimanche, Nandika
Murugavel, Alana Beltran-Balagso, and Katie Inthavong
stand in front of a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at More-
house College in Atlanta, Georgia. PHOTO COURTESY OF

For USF’s newest debate team, a war of words does not necessitate a fight. These fledgling collegiate debaters value cooperation above competition, and are the leaders of an argumentation revitalization on campus. 

“We’re a team of open-minded individuals that encourage diverse opinions,” said debate team member Nandika Murugavel, a freshman business major. “We’re not really in it to win the competitions. Winning is a plus, but we’re mainly focused on personal development and being able to talk about serious topics effectively, and come to solutions.”

The young team just recently made their in-person debate debut, competing at the Social Justice Nationals Debate (SJD) Tournament at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Coordinated by the Civic Debate Conference, the tournament was held from March 25-27, and marked USF’s return to the in-person debate scene following an almost two-year-long hiatus.

The tradition of debate at USF goes back more than 100 years. However, the University never had a full time “Director of Debate.” That is, until rhetoric and communications professor Robert Boller pitched the current debate program, and took on the role this semester.

“USF recognized the huge value of building a program that aligned with the school mission, which requires a full-time director,” Boller said. “It’s a lot of work and I wear many hats; coach, recruiter, PR, budgeting, tournament planning, and teaching. Demand from the students was also high.” 

The SJD Tournament this year centered around the proposition “The adoption of a mandatory desegregation policy for K-12 public schools is desirable.” In short, desegregation remains an ongoing process in the U.S., and some school districts have been implementing or considering actions to desegregate their students and reduce racial isolation in their communities. These integration efforts appear as an attempt to diversify student enrollment and begin to remediate the impact of deeply rooted institutional racism, which has created near-homogeneous, resegregated student populations in many public schools.

Boller said the proposition (pro) arguments at the tournament focused on the “incomplete promises” of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and how K-12 classrooms “have become increasingly racially segregated in recent years.” Opposition (con) arguments, he said, focused on “the problems associated with mandating a policy of desegregation.” Each team had the chance to argue both sides multiple times over the course of the tournament. 

“Leading up to the debate, I was nervous,” Murugavel said. “It was a different format that I hadn’t tried before. It was more research-based, and about a serious, current, and predominant issue. I wanted to make sure I was doing my best, and I was stressing about the points I was going to make and all of the preparation that went into them.”

Despite their nerves and unfamiliarity with the format (collegiate debates occur in a variety of different formats), Murugavel said they felt encouraged when the team arrived at Morehouse. “It was such a welcoming environment for novice debaters like myself,” they said. “It was mainly focused on solutions rather than competition, which was nice since debates can be very intense. And the greatest thing about Atlanta, other than the city’s history, was that it was judged by people who are professionals in debate and academics familiar with the topic.” 

According to Boller, this year’s tournament was inspired by resident scholar Dr. Rucker Johnson, U.C. Berkeley professor of public policy and author of “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.” Dr. Johnson presided as chair judge for the final, along with nine other professionals with knowledge of K-12 education and integration efforts.  

“This experience was a memorable way to end my undergraduate career,” said Alana Beltran-Balagso, a senior politics major and debate team member. “The Social Justice Nationals Debate Tournament was an example of what intercollegiate debate could bring to USF’s campus — platforming diverse perspectives in an inclusive environment to create modern solutions towards a more equitable world,” she said.

The Social Justice Debates (SJD) are an annual intercollegiate debate series founded by Morehouse College and the George Washington University. According to their website, it is the “only intercollegiate debate series in the world dedicated to social justice topics.”

Debater Katie Inthavong, a freshman psychology major, said she went into the SJD with “high hopes to grow as a scholar and individual,” and her expectations were exceeded. “Not only were we able to have stimulating and thought-provoking conversations, but we were also able to meet and interact with vibrant personalities,” Inthavong said. “I came to USF for its emphasis on social justice, and the conference reminded me that opportunities like these were why I chose to come to the school in the first place.”

Multiple universities competed in the tournament, including Gallaudet University, a school exclusively for students who are deaf. The tournament was the first time that a team of deaf students using American Sign Language and English competed in a multi-school intercollegiate debate competition. 

“Debating alongside Gallaudet was a very historic moment,” Murugavel said. 

Ultimately, Morehouse College (HBCU) came out on top in the final. “HBCU beat Howard University in the final, which featured all Black students,” Boller said. “SF’s completely novice team came in the middle of the pack with 17 universities competing. It was a strong showing for us.”  Their next tournament will be the College Public Forum Nationals April 9-10.

USF was also officially asked to join the Civic Debate Conference, with service-learning focused opportunities to participate in competitive and non-competitive events and travel to historical locations. In addition, USF was invited to collaborate on upcoming debate events, and may potentially host a LGBTQ or immigration themed event in 2023, according to Boller. 

“San Francisco has such an amazing, rich history,” Boller said. “If we had an event that was really tied to our history — our sociology, our ethics, our policy — that’s really been inspired by this area, people would come from all over the world, not just America.” 

Boller said his main aims are to inspire collaboration amongst students and promote civic engagement, and that he rejects the hierarchical, “trophy-chasing” culture often associated with collegiate debate.

“We’re a welcoming debate team,” Murugavel said. “We’re not just a bunch of annoying debate kids who are like, ‘oh, you’re wrong.’ We want to hear what people have to say and have a good discussion.” 

“We’re all very opinionated about different things,” explained Liv Harrington, a freshman architecture and community design major. “We all have our different niche subjects that we like to bring to the table. For me, personally, I’m always going to bring in something about urban planning and urban design.”

Harrington said that although this is the team’s first semester, the opinionated group has big plans to connect with the USF community. That includes moderating a public forum on April 28 about diversity in campus policing, regarding both social justice and safety, and exploring campus safety as a shared responsibility. They also plan to host an open practice and mock debate on campus in early May for anyone who would like to attend.

“Overall, people are excited about the debate team,” Harrington said. “I think in the coming years, this is gonna be a big part of USF.” 

Students interested in joining the debate team should reach out to Robert Boller directly for admission to Rhet 298 Practicum in Debate, a 2.0 unit course that can be repeated for up to 6.0 units.


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