They were unranked.
Not even considered legitimate competition.
But they were humble and hungry.
And that’s precisely what endeared the underdog Rutgers Debate Union to Storey Clayton.
“I wanted to get involved with a team that wasn’t necessarily at the top of their game but had potential,” said Clayton, 31, a former debate champ who volunteered his services to the leaderless debate team on the New Brunswick Campus, team last year.
Since then, the rag-tag team has become the university’s latest Cinderella story. After Clayton’s first year at the helm, the debate union, comprised of students from Rutgers’ New Brunswick Campus, ranked nationally (24th place) for the first time since forming in 2001. This year, it is expected to finish fourth in a field of 60 to 70 schools, trailing only Yale, Harvard, and Boston University. The last regular season tournament is April 15 and 16, with the National Championships at West Point set for April 22-24.
“I had aspirations and high hopes of turning things around and putting them into the rankings,” said Clayton. “This year we exceeded my hopes and expectations. It’s been exciting to see that momentum almost get out of control.”
A debater for Brandeis University from 1998 to 2002, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-bred Clayton won the North American Debating Championship in 2001. That same year, Clayton took top honors at the first debate Rutgers hosted. Returning to the university as a coach instead of the competition is “a nice full-circle thing,” he said.
In May 2009, when Clayton was planning a move to Princeton from the San Francisco Bay area, he reached out via e-mail to then team president Eric Knecht. After phone interviews with Knecht and a few team leaders about his philosophy and vision for the team, they welcomed Clayton as their coach in August of 2009. A short time later, their record was on the rise.
So what’s the secret to the debate union’s success?
Clayton began by breaking down the myth that debate skills are a birthright. “We’ve been really encouraging anyone who has an interest (that they) can get involved and can learn,” he said, which boosted the team’s membership somewhere between 30 and 40 students, half of whom are active participants. “It’s not something that’s innate. No one’s born knowing how to speak to a room full of people or debate logically.”
Case in point, School of Arts and Sciences senior David Reiss. The English and history major is the team’s top debater and ranks 12th nationally as an individual. A former fencer and glee club member from Princeton, Reiss had no prior debate experience when he walked on to the university’s team his freshman year. “I wasn't exactly a debate prodigy at first, but I stuck with it. And now four years and a lot of hard work later I've been very successful,” Reiss, 22, said. “Ultimately anyone can debate as long as you can reason and are willing to put in the necessary work.”
So from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. – and often times later – on Tuesdays and Thursdays the debate union hunkers in basement classrooms of Scott Hall to deliver impassioned yet logical arguments about everything from European economic policy to alternate Harry Potter endings. While practicing mock cases, students experiment with theatrical gestures and polish delivery styles that are equal parts preacher and politician. All the while, Clayton scribbles away, his head bobbing between his notepad and the podium. Those notes inform his post-debate critiques, when he lauds improvements or calls students out for using sloppy logic.
“I can't say enough about Storey,” said Reiss. “Before he showed up our team was something of a shambles. Storey brought vast amounts of experience that we all benefited from. He's also just made the whole process incredibly fun.”
“Storey is the reason that we are successful,” echoed freshman debater Ashley Novak, 19. “We have a lot of talented debaters, but no one knew how to put that to use or how to improve, and Storey spends all his time helping us with that.”
Storey’s presence and the debate union’s upswing last year are what swayed Novak, a member of her Ransom, Pennsylvania, high school debate team, to choose Rutgers over her initial first-choice schools.
“I was originally deciding between Cornell, Albright, and Penn State. Penn State and Albright didn't have debate teams. I visited Cornell's team, and it was also nonexistent. They hadn't competed in over three years,” she said.
“We got lucky because Cornell had an off year,” Clayton said of Novak, who is now the team’s second-ranked novice.
But Novak’s decision to select Rutgers largely on the success of the debate union is no fluke, said Clayton, who anticipates the school will be able parlay the team’s impressive record as a means for recruiting more students: “Change the momentum, get the spark and build on that for years. That’s the theory for bringing more articulate and intellectual heft to the school.”
Earlier this month the university offered Clayton a full-time temporary staff position, which he has accepted, ditching plans to move back West. Though his new job description has not been finalized, Clayton sees his and the debate union’s role expanding beyond intercollegiate competitions in the future.
That means utilizing the team’s talent at home in more public debates highlighting campus issues, such as Project Civility’s invitation for the team to host the upcoming debate exhibition: Does Civility Promote Freedom, Democracy and Equality?
Members of the debate union, seasoned public servants, and Rutgers faculty will argue the positive and negative sides of civility during an April 27 exhibition debate, set for 8 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of the Rutgers Student Center on College Avenue. The event is part of Project Civility, a two-year ongoing dialogue at the university.
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