Triumphant Return: UW students return to policy debate competition after 17 years


The University of Washington Debate Union found quick success in its return to the college policy debate, narrowly missing the final round of competition at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Despite facing opponents with more tournaments of competition under their belt, the team of Tim Pollard (senior, electrical engineering) and Dylan Thomas (sophomore, electrical engineering) won five consecutive debates before being defeated in the semifinals of the junior varsity division by a combined team of Rutgers University and City University of New York (CUNY). McKenna Mains (freshman, undeclared) and Rebecca Petrone (freshman, political science) also reached the elimination stage of the novice-division.

Dr. Michael Souders, Department of Communication Lecturer and the Debate Union’s director, said the main goal of the trip was to simply get UW back into the policy debating and that the success was a bonus.

“Debate competition is much like a sport and like sports programs we have benchmarks and goals,” he said. “Our benchmark here was simply getting into competition and hopefully winning a few debates. The students really exceeded the program benchmarks.”

Souders knows a little bit about success. He won a national championship in 2009 and coached the top speaker in the nation in 2011 while he was an assistant coach at the University of Kansas.

The Debate Team takes a break to wander around Central Park in New York City.

The Debate Team takes a break to wander around Central Park in New York City.

A total of five undergraduate competitors trekked to the nation’s premier military school for three days of competition against more than a dozen other universities, including Rutgers, Liberty University, CUNY, James Madison University, Cornell, and New York University. The competition required a wide-variety of skills.

“Policy is different from all other activities mostly because you have to combine an array of skills to use in [debates],”Mains said. “You have to be able to research and use reading comprehension to understand evidence, build relationships with judges and other teams, and develop efficient methods to get things accomplished, such as clicking between browsing tabs, faster typing, and formatting. You have to develop better speaking skills overall.”

Returning UW to policy debate competition has been an important goal of the program since its revival last year by the Department of Communication. It has been more than 17 years since UW last fielded an intercollegiate policy debate team and at least 24 years since policy debate was an officially supported activity.

“Debate skills are essential to public life…and debate creates leaders,” says the Debate Union homepage. “In a world in which incorrect information and unjustified ideas are abundant, debate creates the sort of confident leaders who can direct public thinking toward moral and prosperous decisions.”

With more events and travel dates planned for the upcoming year, the Debate Union is well on its way to returning to the robust program it used to be.

“Policy debate competition is the most rigorous type of debate there is, but it’s just one facet of our dynamic program,” said Souders. “We have public debates, we facilitate events like the Philipsen Debate Forum, and we work with high school students. But it’s an important one and I’m glad it’s back.”