UT Austin forensics team is something to shout about

Feb. 29, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas—Quick, name a program at UT Austin that boasts seven consecutive national championships, is recognized by the ceremonial lighting of the UT Tower and has achieved a level of excellence and professionalism that rank it as one of the premier competitive programs in the country.

If you guessed football, baseball, golf or any of the other intercollegiate sports in which the University has excelled, you'd do well to ask for a "lifeline" before submitting your final answer.

If you said the UT forensics program, you're ready for the million-dollar question. Just what is forensics, anyway? Let's start with what it's not. It's notforensic science, which is any aspect of science as it relates to the law.

Forensics ispublic speaking and oral interpretation of literature, with events designed to focus on each of the different ways the spoken word can be used to persuade or move an audience. The word "forensics" is rooted in the Western world's classical experience. The Greeks organized contests for speakers that developed and recognized the abilities their society believed central to democracy. These exercises acquired the title forensics, derived from the Latin term forensisand closely related to forum.

UT Austin's program excels in every area of forensics competition, winning the American Forensics Association (AFA) National Debate Tournament/National Individual Events Tournament Overall National Championship for the past seven years in a row. "What our students have accomplished is amazing," said Dr. Peter Pober, founding director of the Texas Forensic Union Individual Events Team that makes up half of UT's forensics program.

Pober's own credentials are considerable. He was awarded the Texas Excellence Teaching Award as the outstanding instructor in the College of Communication in 1991 and was named the Texas Educator of the Year by the Texas Speech Communication Association that same year. He currently serves as president of that organization.

Forensics is an extracurricular activity requiring as much or more practice and dedication as athletics. It provides useful career preparation in law, education, politics, broadcasting, religion, public affairs, business and other professions requiring critical thinking and communication skills. Indeed, graduates of UT's forensics program have gone on to successful careers in each of those fields.

Unlike athletics, where competitors hone physical skills, forensics builds mental ones. "Champion debaters spend 20 to 40 hours a week researching and writing arguments," said Dr. Joel Rollins, director of the debate team that makes up the second half of the forensics program. Rollins serves as chair of the National Debate Tournament (NDT) District III, the largest NDT district in the nation. In 1992 and 1996, he served on the United Press International's Presidential Debate evaluation panels.

Allan D. Louden, director of debate at Wake Forest University, said UT Austin's accomplishments in forensics are impressive on the national scale.

"I served a two-year term as president of the American Forensics Association, and one of the responsibilities was to present the Joint National Tournament Award," Louden said. "I had the pleasure of conveying this special recognition to the University of Texas both years. The award recognizes the university or college that has the best combined finishes at the National Individual Events Tournament (NIET) and the National Debate Tournament, the toughest and most prestigious competitions of the season.

"This award, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, as it signals that the squads have won hundreds of additional awards during the season leading up to the final tournaments. The reason for Texas' notable success is talented students, university support and, most centrally, the leadership of Joel Rollins and Peter Pober."

Larry Schnoor, AFA/NIET tournament director, agreed.

"The UT Austin forensic program is one of the most outstanding in the nation," he said. "Their success speaks highly of the quality of students and the coaching at the University. The success of the team clearly has provided the standard for the rest of the nation to achieve. They are the pacesetters for others to follow."

The individual events team, which became one of only three programs in the history of the AFA to place in the top 20 programs in its first year of existence (1988), is composed of approximately 17-23 students representing nearly every college at the University.

Each student may compete nationally in as many as six of the 11 sponsored events, which range from limited preparation speaking to memorized oration to the performance of literature.

To qualify an event for the national tournament, each student must place in that event at three separate tournaments with a cumulative ranking of no more than eight (for example, first, second and fifth; second, second and fourth).

On average, the team qualifies about 45 to 55 events to the national tournament, with between three and five events per individual. From 1988 to 1999, the team produced a total of 15 National Event Championships, along with one Overall National Champion Sweepstakes winner, Matthew Whitley (1996-97). To date, the program has received awards for 101 national quarter-finalists, 51 national semi-finalists and 68 national finalists.

The debate program is composed of 30 highly motivated students from a variety of disciplines. Although no prior experience is required to join the team, most members have successfully participated in high school cross-examination (policy) debate. The UT Austin debate team is a nationally ranked, intensely competitive program that offers students the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate Cross Examination Debate Association and NDT debate at national and regional levels.

Unlike the individual events team, the debate team focuses on one topic for an entire year. The current topic is Resolved: That the United States federal government should adopt a policy of constructive engagement, including the immediate removal of all, or nearly all, economic sanctions, with the government(s) of one of more of the following nation-states: Cuba, Iran, Syria and North Korea.

The latest NDT rankings, based on points earned at tournaments conducted across the country, list UT Austin's debate team second in the nation in varsity competition, behind only Emory University. Other recent accomplishments of the debate squad include

  • Winner of 2000 championships at Northwestern, Baylor, William Jewell and the University of Missouri-Kansas City

  • 10 consecutive years in the elimination rounds of the NDT

  • Only school ever to have three teams finish in the top 16 after preliminaries at the NDT

  • First school with three teams in the elimination rounds of the NDT

  • 1995 NDT semifinalist, 1997 and 1993 quarterfinalist.

The 54th Annual National Debate Tournament will be held March 22-27 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The 22nd Annual AFA National Individual Events Tournament will be held March 31-April 3 at the University of Nebraska.