Mac debate team argues for involvement

By Angela Clem

Five weeks ago, the Macalester debate team competed against 28 schools in the annual Las Vegas Classic debate competition at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. The team, consisting of Jeremy Chavez ’16 and Lucas Smith ’15, made it to the quarter-finals. Smith won the top speaker award in the division, meaning he had the highest cumulative speaker points amongst any single debater in the divi­sion. Smith is a self-described “contrarian at heart.” It’s difficult for some people to discover the perfect extracurricular activity to match their personality, but for Smith, the choice was easy. “I started debate in high school, and it was awesome…It really meshed with my competi­tive nature,” Smith said. Smith spent three of his high school years debating in Kansas. Perhaps surprisingly to non-debaters, there can be a large difference in attitude and strategy between regions. “[Kansas] has a really bad reputation amongst other debate places,” Smith said. “The judging pool is generally considered to be of a lesser quality because you have ‘Mom-and-Pop’-type judges, but I disagree—it’s just a dif­ferent quality. You learn to adapt.” Smith joined the debate team upon arriv­ing at Macalester in Fall 2011. There were four students on the team for the first competition. By the second competition, the group had lost two students, and Smith was the only remaining team member by the end of the academic year. Smith points to the loss of the debate coach po­sition two years ago, whose duties were reas­signed to forensics coach Dick Lesicko. This year found Smith scrambling for re­cruits from the new first-year class and from re­turning students. He found one in Chavez, who hails from Los Angeles, CA. Smith believes Chavez is the perfect addition to the team. “[Chavez] is ridiculously smart,” Smith said. “He debated in the urban debate league [in Los Angeles]. I met him when he came for a spring sampler. He’s really excited about debate…that’s what’s fun about working with him. He generally wants to do the work and he wants to be involved, which is really what the program needs right now.” The Las Vegas Classic debate competi­tion draws teams from across the nation and from varying levels of skill. Teams from Ari­zona, Texas, Wyoming, Washington, Minnesota and Kansas attended the event. “Everybody wants to take a trip to Vegas, so everybody shows up,” Smith laughed. Although the team did relatively well in the Las Vegas competition, Smith returned from the trip with concerns regard­ing his team’s future. “[Forensics coach Dick Lesicko] is stretched pretty thin already,” Smith said. “It’s hard for Mac to compete with other schools who have more institutional support.” Smith is working to expand the team, as well as push the administration for the return of the debate coach position. He attributes the small size of the debate team to a lack of insti­tutional support and a lack of student interest. “All college students make calculations about the things they get involved in,” Smith said. “It’s a question of time commitment and the relative gain you expect to get out of it. It’s a vicious cycle; without more students interested, the administration doesn’t want to fund the po­sition, but if there’s not a coach, students aren’t interested.” The lack of a debate coach leaves few restric­tions on what the team can do if they have inter­est, but it also requires Smith to act in both the role of team member and of student manager. Smith is also concerned that the student body’s image of the debate team is not an accurate rep­resentation. “[The debate program] has a reputation as be­ing an insular group because college debate is fast and technical, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” Smith said. “There is a novice division for kids in college who didn’t debate in high school; they just have to show a willingness to commit.” Smith and Chavez are working hard with Logan Chin, hired judge and advisor, to prepare for a competition in January. The event is in California and will consist of 24 debates over the course of seven days. If you are interested in joining the Macalester debate team, contact [email protected]