Brandeis debate team ranked 2nd in US and aiming for the top

Club members say inclusivity is a key to their success

Photos/Mike Lovett

From left to right: Kim Bouchard-Chaimowiz '12, James Weiss '16, Veronica Saltzman '16, Russell Leibowitz '14, David Altman '15, Michael Norton '16, Ellie Driscoll '16

The Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society (BADASS) is at a peak.

The club is currently ranked second in the nation, behind Yale. It has also received three consecutive Club of the Year awards from the country’s top collegiate debating society.

“It’s the highest ranking we’ve ever had,” says Russell Leibowitz ’14, though the team has come close in the past, including a third-place finish last season.

The club’s secret weapon, members say, is its inclusivity.

BADASS is an open club. That is to say it does not hold tryouts, and anyone who wishes to join the club is admitted. That’s radically different from the practice of other top-ranked debate teams, including those at Yale, Harvard and Princeton universities, which have rigorous tryout processes.

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Current APDA standings

1. Yale University

2. Brandeis University

3. Harvard University

4. Johns Hopkins University

5. Swarthmore College

6. Rutgers University

7. Princeton University

8. American University

9. New York University

10. Brown University

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The teams compete in the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), in which 50 of the nation’s most esteemed university teams practice a style of debate loosely based on the British Parliament.

Why should inclusion help the team’s status more than weeding out the chaff with tryouts?

“I lost every round of my first debate,” says David Altman ‘15, who has since won a number of high-profile competitions, “Clubs that have tryouts are testing people before they’ve learned to debate. People don’t know what they’re doing when they start.”

The club is open in more ways than one. It allows members to debate in any style they’re comfortable with, “harnessing what they are good at, whether it’s emotional or logical arguments,” Leibowitz says. The club’s website proudly boasts “No previous debate experience necessary; we’ll teach you everything you need to know!” Students compete in various categories

BADASS is student-run. Members meet every Tuesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. in room 112 of Olin-Sang, and travel to debates each weekend – except when the debates are here, like the Brandeis IV on Dec. 8 and 9. It’s a rigorous schedule full of intense events, but it’s not an all-or-nothing endeavor, and members don’t risk missing out on the typical college social life. While attendance at most practices is required, members can compete as frequently or infrequently as they wish, and members say weekends on the road with fellow members offers plenty of fun too.

“There’s a lot of great people and we even have fun in the van driving to tournaments,” Leibowitz says. “Just hanging out and singing along to Taylor Swift, destressing.”

Debate topics run the gamut from the very serious to the silly, and even a lighthearted topic like whether the pink Power Ranger should be a male character instead of a girl can ignite impassioned arguments, Altman says.

“Sometimes they are ridiculous and entertaining,” Altman says.

But the club also uses its debate skills and sense of community to help foster discussion on serious topics. BADASS participates in DEIS Impact, for example, an annual event exploring social justice on campus and around the world. The club also hopes to host more tournaments on campus in the coming seasons.

The Club of the Year award is decided by asking APDA members which team, other than their own, they’d want to join, is another indicator of their status among peers.

Word seems to be getting out. At its first meeting of the year, about 40 new students showed up.

“They won’t all stay, of course, but we’ll keep some of them,” Altman says, adding that it’s never too late to join.

As for the team’s hopes for the remainder of the season, Altman says it’s unlikely they’ll supplant Yale in rankings this year, as the rankings are based on total points won at each debate for two-person teams (Leibowitz and Keith Barry are seventh), individual speakers (Keith is fifth and Leibowitz is seventh) and novice speakers (Michael Norton is first); there is currently a large point gap between first and second clubs.

Next season? It might be debatable.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Student Life

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