Stanford Policy Debate continues to grow, succeed

April 26, 2015, 1:48 p.m.
While the policy debate team may be less well-known when compared to the bigger parliamentary debate team, the policy debaters have experienced success at the national level. (Courtesy of Brian Manuel)
While the policy debate team may be less well-known when compared to the bigger parliamentary debate team, the policy debaters have experienced success at the national level. (Courtesy of Brian Manuel)

As one of two divisions of the Stanford Debate Society, the Stanford policy debate team had a highly successful season, finishing in the elimination rounds of the National Debate Tournament. As a relatively new program, the team has grown significantly in regard to competition over the past three years.

Led by head coach Brian Manuel and captain Sukhi Gulati ’16, the Stanford team currently has four active debaters. When Manuel came to Stanford four years ago after many years being active in the debate community, his goal was to revitalize policy debate at Stanford, which had not had a consistent program since the 1990s.

In addition to Manuel, who commutes to Stanford about once a month, the team has one assistant coach in the area and another who joins them at tournaments only. According to Manuel, this structure is unusual for a policy debate team.

“Stanford is a more unique experience than other schools which often have a debate team housed in the communications department with graduate students and faculty,” Manuel said.

Gulati also said that although tight-knit as a team, Stanford policy debate has less resources than many other schools with more established teams.

“We are definitively on the smaller side and we have less infrastructure year round than other teams,” Gulati said.

Nonetheless, the team had competitive success over the past year. In particular, Gulati and partner Ella Lowry ’16 debated in the elimination rounds of every major tournament they attended, including Harvard, Wake Forest, USC and invite-only round robin tournaments. They finished their season in double-octafinals (the top 32 teams) at the National Debate Tournament.

For Gulati, this was her second time competing at nationals, a feat which has a complicated qualification process including a regional qualification tournament. It was also Gulati’s second time making an elimination round appearance.

“As far as Sukhi and Ella are concerned, I imagine them being one of the top teams in the country next year,” Manuel said.

In addition to the Gulati-Lowry partnership, the team of Julia Alison ’18 and Jarrod Cingel ’18 competed at tournaments around the country. Manuel also shared excitement for future growth of the team.

“In the incoming class of 2016 [current high school seniors] we have six recruits,” Manuel said. “This is the first year we have had a large recruiting class, which says a lot about how far we have gone.”

Gulati also expressed hope for the future of the team.

“By the nature of [Stanford] admissions, our team will never get too big, but… when we leave here we want Stanford to be a place where people can do policy debate,” Gulati said.

Gulati also explained that it is harder for students without debate experience to join the policy team. Many collegiate policy debaters, including Gulati, did high school policy debate and attended summer debate camps while in high school which help prepare them for collegiate competition.

While policy debate at Stanford is growing, parliamentary debate is still the larger group.  The two styles differ in that parliamentary debate has changing topics every round, while policy debate has a set topic each year.

According to parliamentary debater Jimmy Zhou ’18, policy and parliamentary debate are essentially separate entities.

“There is little interaction [between the two teams], but both have representation on the Stanford Debate Society executive board,” said Zhou.

From the policy side, Gulati had a similar view.

“We all put on the high school tournament together and have a million high schoolers clogging up the Starbucks line but operate pretty separately,” said Gulati.

While the two teams also share a budget for travel, each division of the Stanford Debate Society has its own set members and coaches. Many other universities will have either a parliamentary or policy team, so it somewhat unique for Stanford to have both. The policy team competes mostly at other US schools, while the parliamentary team competes both domestically and abroad.

This year’s college policy debate topic was “Resolved: The United States should legalize all or nearly all of one or more of the following in the United States: marihuana, online gambling, physician-assisted suicide, prostitution, the sale of human organs.”

Gulati and Lowry focused on the prostitution portion of the topic. According to Gulati, the partnership’s arguments drew heavily from feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray and her concepts “of the way that femininity or difference is subjugated to an ideal form of masculinity.”

Because the topic stays constant throughout the year, this means that policy debate also requires more research. Teams switch off debating “affirmative” or “negative” from round to round, so they must research as many aspects of the topic as possible.

According to Gulati, college policy debaters will have thousands of shared files and “backfiles” from previous years stored on their computers. The files are created by reading articles, underlining important information the first time through and then going back and highlighting the information again to produce a very condensed form of information. Some of this research might be read by the debaters in almost every round, while other pieces of evidence might be read once a year. The goal is to be prepared for as many arguments and nuances as possible.

Since the topic is set during the summer, much of the research is done before the competitive season begins. However, the team prepares specific arguments before each tournament throughout the year based on the teams that will be competing in a given weekend.

“My coach used to tell me that if debaters are doing it right, the work that a typical college debater does each year is enough work for an undergraduate honors thesis,” Gulati said.

Although this is a lot of work for such a small program, Gulati and Manuel both feel the team is willing to put in the effort.

“We are here because the students have bought into my approach,” Manuel said, in reference to the team’s recent successes. “Everyone that comes into the program is building [the team] for the future. Even if the program doesn’t exist 20 years from now, the work that they have done… well, nothing can bring that down.”


Contact Ada Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’

Ada Statler '18 is an earth systems major hailing from Kansas City (on the Kansas side, not Missouri). She's most passionate about environmental journalism, but cares about all things campus-related.

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