Rutgers-Newark Debate Team Hitting Its Stride

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The Rutgers-Newark Debate Team unofficially began during the fall semester of 2008 when then-sophomores Chris Pinho and Kevin Cenac joined forces, under the tutelage of debate coach Kurt Shelton, to win the junior varsity division of the Binghamton Debate Tournament at Binghamton University. “We dubbed Chris and Kevin the ‘Cinderella Debate Team’ because of their triumphant victory in the midst of virtual anonymity,” remarks Shelton. Shelton, a former collegiate debater at the University of North Texas, has coached policy debate, primarily at the high school level through the Jersey Urban Debate League (JUDL), for nearly 15 years.

Impressed with the success of Pinho and Cenac, Marcia Brown, vice chancellor of Rutgers-Newark and a current JUDL board member, Marc Holzer, dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark, and JUDL launched an official debate team during the 2009-2010 academic year. With as many as eight debaters, the team has debated in tournaments hosted by Western Connecticut State University, United States Naval Academy, George Mason University, Monmouth University, and Binghamton University. Debaters range from freshmen to seniors with varying majors such as history, English, criminal justice, and economics.

 “Debate is an excellent way for students of all ages, studying various disciplines, to develop their critical thinking, research, oral communications, and leadership skills,” notes Brown, an urban debate advocate for nearly three decades.

As of the end of the fall 2010 season, the team had achieved a National Debate Tournament overall ranking of 61 and a varsity ranking of 51, each out of a field of 113, outranking many first-tier schools like Boston College, Columbia University, New York University, and Stanford University.

Earlier this month, the Rutgers-Newark Debate Team ventured into new territory. On December 8, 2010, the team participated in the first of a series of public debates in open space called the Streetcar Debate Series. At issue? Whether the New York Islamic Cultural Center should be built near Ground Zero? Moderated by Mary Segers, professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark, freshman debater Carlos Astacio argued the affirmative while freshman debater Elijah Smith represented the negative.

“Organized public discourse on current hot topics is a great vehicle for introducing and continually exposing individuals to the art of debate,” states Brent Farrand, executive director of JUDL.

The Streetcar Debate Series is co-sponsored by JUDL, the Rutgers-Newark Office of the Chancellor, the School of Public Affairs and Administration, the Rutgers-Newark Debate Team, the Abbott Leadership Institute, and Stand and Deliver. To learn more about the Rutgers-Newark Debate Team or the Streetcar Debate Series, contact Vice Chancellor Brown at 973-353-5541.