The great debate
Once close to disappearing, Cal Forensics team climbs back, winning top national awards this year

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


the champions

Left: Dan Shalmon, Jim Burk (executive director of the California Alumni Association) and Randy Luskey display the Rex Copeland Memorial Award. Right: Students Danny Barak and Will Trachman show off the trophy they won for parliamentary debate.
Noah Berge photos

25 April 2001 | Just a few years ago, Berkeley’s debate team was on the verge of losing its voice. Cal Forensics — a campus tradition for nearly a century — teetered on the brink of extinction for lack of funding and student interest.

But within the last four years, the team has argued and persuaded its way back into the upper echelon of university debaters, winning top awards last season.

Its ascent was made possible, in part, by donations from a group of Berkeley alumni, many of whom were former debaters, known as the “Friends of Cal Forensics.”

“With alumni support, the team is now able to recruit top talent from around the country,” said Renato Almanzor, associate director of the Office of Student Life and the team’s adviser. “The team has done so much with so little, it really speaks to the caliber of these students that they have been so successful.”

Cal Forensics’ parliamentary debate team recently garnered the equivalent of horse racing’s Triple Crown, sweeping all categories at this year’s national tournament, over 288 other universities.

Berkeley won the top prize for the individual team competition, awarded to Will Trachman and Danny Barak; for the whole team’s overall performance; and for the team’s achievements throughout the year.

It was the first time a school swept all three divisions and the first time a student-run team won the national championship. Berkeley’s parliamentary branch has no coach and is one of only a few student-run teams.

Despite their decisive win last month in Denver, Colo., Barak admits he got a little nervous before the championship round.

“I felt a little sick, but once I started, I got into my zone,” said Barak, a senior majoring in rhetoric. “When I’m actually competing, I forget about my physical self and get totally into the performance.”

In parliamentary debate, the audience gets involved, he said, yelling “here, here” or slamming the table with their fists when they hear a good argument. But they can quickly turn on a debater, admonishing unpopular rhetoric by hissing or calling out “shame, shame.”

Berkeley’s team tends to argue liberal causes, owing to its left-wing leanings, said Barak. However, the team once found itself defending the use of the Confederate flag. Ironically, they won.

Berkeley’s national debate team, the other, more traditional faction of Cal Forensics, finished fifth in the national competition, with one of their two-person teams — Dan Shalmon and Randy Luskey — taking home the Rex Copeland Award, honoring the top performance of the year.

Unlike parliamentary debate — a newer style of debate that focuses on a different topic at each match — national team debaters argue one proposition for the whole year.

Competitors immerse themselves in the subject, soaking up every bit of literature available. They also have a one coach, who assists them with research and debating style.

Most college national debate teams have up to 10 coaches, said Almanzor.

While parliamentary emphasizes persuasive speech skills, national relies more on technical, policy-oriented arguments, said Matt McDonald, captain of Berkeley’s national team.

Another difference, says McDonald, is speed. National debaters talk fast. Though clocked at up to 300 words per minute, McDonald’s rate is considered moderate among those in the field. For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to follow, he said.

Most debaters hail from the rhetoric or political science departments, which contributes to their success, team members say.

“The academic strength of these departments,” says Barak, “is directly related to the strength of our teams.”

Though the debate season is officially over, the team will get one more chance to flex its rhetorical muscles, as Cal meets Stanford in a Big Game redux, Wednesday, May 2, at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

For information, call (415) 597-6700.


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