Great Debate

The Barkley Forum celebrates an indisputably successful sixty years

Legacy of Achievement: Longtime Barkley Forum director Melissa Maxcy-Wade 72C 76G 96T 00T (above right) hopes to establish a Center for Debate Education at Emory.
Ann Borden

Stephen Weil 11C and Ovais Inamullah 11C (left) are the first team to win the Rex Copeland Award two years in a row.

Courtesy Melissa Maxcy-Wade

It’s not surprising that the fast-talking former mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani—someone whose career has depended on communicating effectively—understands the merits of academic debate. Giuliani gave the keynote address in April at the annual Glenn Pelham Foundation benefit dinner to support debate education.  Named for the founder of Emory’s Barkley Forum debate team, the Atlanta-based Glenn Pelham Foundation works with the University to help grow the Urban Debate League (UDL), the inner-city debate program started in 1985 by Barkley Forum director Melissa Maxcy-Wade 72C 76G 96T 00T.

Debaters in high school, Giuliani said, “are going to learn logic, they’re going to learn how you have to put together a series of ideas that make sense to somebody else other than you. . . and that’s really important to your ability to think. No matter who you are, when you get up and you speak and you can make a logical argument, you start to realize your own power and you realize what you have inside you.” This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Barkley Forum, one of the most competitive debate teams in the country. The team traveled more than six thousand miles during the season to compete in fourteen debate competitions that would ultimately determine their spot at the start of the National Debate Tournament (NDT).

Rudy Giuliani praised the merits of debate to students in the Urban Debate League.

Ann Borden

The team with the best performance across the entire season is recognized with the Rex Copeland Award before the start of the NDT. In more than forty years, only one team has ever earned this honor twice in consecutive years. On the eve of the 2011 tournament at the University of Texas in Dallas, Emory’s debate duo Stephen Weil 11C and Ovais Inamullah 11C were recognized as the only consecutive winners of the Rex Copeland Award for best season-long performance.

“It was amazing to see all the hard work we’ve put in over the past two years really pay off,” says Inamullah.

Likening the honor to the BCS National Championship in football, Wade, the thirty-nine-year executive director of forensics at Emory, says the award is an outstanding feat. “For one team out of the 1,500 kids or so that compete at that level of debate to win twice is quite an extraordinary contribution to Emory debate history,” says Wade.

Debate director Edward Lee notes that the coaches and the forty others on the team worked to provide Weil and Inamullah with the information and tools they needed to succeed.

“[We’ve built] a community that’s dedicated to hard work, a community that’s dedicated to support and camaraderie, and a community that’s dedicated to valuing each other,” Lee says.

That spirit has shaped a legacy of achievement for the Barkley Forum, which holds thirty-two national intercollegiate debate titles and several national competitive records. In 2007, Aimi Hamraie 07C and Julie Hoehn 08C were the first all-female team to win the Rex Copeland Award. And in 2001, Stephen Bailey 01C and Kamal Ghali 01C were named the national “debate team of the decade” for 1999 to 2009 by a national poll; Bailey was the first African American to ever receive that designation.

“Excellence comes out of collaboration,” Wade says. “That’s the hallmark of the Barkley Forum.”

For Hamraie, the Barkley Forum was a channel through which she made lasting connections and developed the skills that would prepare her for her future in graduate school. “The Barkley Forum was the most important part of my undergraduate career,” she says.

Collaboration and dedication may have remained constant during the Barkley Forum’s six decades, but some things have changed.

In September 2009, the Barkley Forum began the transition to paperless, shedding the cumbersome boxes of files debaters have been carrying from tournament to tournament since the days of US Vice President Alben W. Barkley 1900C, the namesake of Emory’s debate program.

“At first everyone was kind of apprehensive about going paperless, especially because it was new and because people were afraid that computer problems would make them lose debates,” says Barkley Forum alumnus J. T. Thomas 09C. But those fears proved unfounded. The transition also allows less affluent schools the chance to compete nationally because they can afford to bring debate resources and information on a plane, Thomas adds.

Wade says the UDL was designed to offset the inherent inequality in public, urban educational systems. “I literally wandered into an Atlanta public school, and I ended up getting hooked up with three teachers who taught me an enormous amount about the poverty there. By the end of the year, we had really worked through something to create a new program,” Wade says.

The UDL has grown rapidly since its creation in the 1980s and is now established in more than five hundred urban high schools in twenty-four cities across the US and the world, including New York, Chicago, and Seoul. Thomas says he values the research and logic skills he learned through debate and enjoys helping students in the Atlanta UDL develop their own tools for success.

“Students understand how to use databases, journals, the library,” Thomas says. “They can come up with a logical progression of thought and defend it.”

Wade says there is a rich exchange between the Emory students who coach and those in the UDL. Many of the six hundred alumni of the Barkley Forum continue to be involved well past graduation.

“Maybe, just maybe, debate education is the way out of this red-state-blue-state, twenty-four-hour news cycle, talking heads screaming at each other,” Wade says. “If we could learn to talk to each other, we could figure out solutions.”

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