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UAA’s fast-talking champs: Seawolf Debate Program takes on Stanford Thursday

From the sexual misconduct of former UAA Anthropology Professor Dr. David Yesner to the recent recommendation of University of Alaska President Jim Johnson to close UAA’s School of Education, it’s no secret that the University of Alaska Anchorage has taken some major hits of late. But those are only two examples of many. The loss of longtime UAA Department of Theatre and Dance Professor Brian Jeffery in 2018 nearly spelled the end of the UAA Dance program while the UAA Department of Art continues to face difficult decisions about which programs it can continue to sustain.

Simply put, there is a dark cloud of uncertainty obscuring what should be a bright spot for Alaska. However, nature abhors a vacuum and while some programs struggle to find equilibrium amongst the chaos, some have emerged as shining stars. One such program is the Seawolf Debate Program.

Founded in 1972, the program has a core of approximately 20 students who compete and carry out satellite programs such as the Alaska State Drama, Debate and Forensics High School Championships and the Middle School Public Debate Program. While most members are college-aged, it is not uncommon for the program to attract returning education students from across all academic disciplines. There is of course one caveat, the program does not recruit students from outside of Alaska.

“I think the coolest thing about the team and the success we’ve accumulated over the years is that nearly all of our team members are Alaskan students. We don’t recruit from ‘Outside’, largely because I believe that our public university has an obligation to Alaskan students first,” explains Seawolf Debate Program Director Steve Johnson.

Under Johnson’s leadership, Seawolf debaters have been racking up impressive wins at the national and international level. In 2016, Johanna Richter and Jonathon Taylor represented UAA at the World Universities Debating Championship—known colloquially as “Worlds”—where they placed 33rd overall. At first glance, their placement may not seem impressive so here’s some context.

The annual tournament to crown the world champion of intercollegiate debating attracts roughly 400 teams from more than 195 institutions across 70 nations each year. After three days of preliminary rounds, only 48 teams with winning records advance to the elimination phase of the competition. UAA was one of only two public institutions from the U.S. to advance.

Not bad for a public institution that is not only underfunded but underappreciated by some of Alaska’s elected officials.

This Thursday, two of Johnson’s all-stars, Robert Hockema and John Macy are poised to put on a show of academic prowess as they take on visiting students from the Stanford University debate team. Given the political climate, the debate’s topic—is America ready for socialism—should lead to some fiery arguments on both sides.

Although Stanford’s team ranked in the top five percent of teams at the 2019 World Universities Debating Championships, Johnson feels confident about his team’s chances.

“Well, any given Sunday, right? Stanford is a very strong program, but we’ve faced them in competition before and held our own. Robert Hockema and John Macy are very accomplished senior members of our team, so I think we’ll hold our own,” says Johnson.

To win, Johnson’s duo will have to woo two guest judges— Ryan McKee of Americans for Prosperity and Tim Higginbotham of Democratic Socialists of America—and a live audience who will vote via an online, text-based voting system.

While a win on Thursday would be a nice feather in Johnson’s cap as well as a subtle middle finger to the state’s proposed budget cuts, Johnson feels that the practice of active debating is the real victory.

“If there is one thread that connects all of academia, it’s argument,” advocates Johnson. “Nearly everything has a point of view and nearly everything with a point of view aspires to convince others of that perspective. The humanities, the social sciences, business and economics and the sciences are all about forming hypotheses and testing them against evidence. At its core, that’s an argument. What we study has utility for every student in every discipline. If I were king of the university, every student would have to debate for two years—at least—before they’d be allowed to enroll in a class.”


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