Inaugural Northwestern Debate Induction Ceremony Kicks off New Tradition

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September 22, 2016

Northwestern Debate Society alumni from around the country gathered Saturday night as part of a special reunion and ceremony to honor the first inductees to the Debate Hall of Achievement.

“I am more delighted than words can say to be here tonight,” said School of Communication dean Barbara O’Keefe, herself a former debater. “This is something I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time…. Medill has had their hall of fame for a long time, and now it’s our opportunity to recognize the extraordinary achievements of our debate alumni… Debate has long been a jewel in the crown of Northwestern.”


Mike Denger accepts his Hall of Achievement honor from former debate director Thomas McClain.

As the oldest continuous debate program in the country, the Northwestern Debate Society dates back to 1855 and has won 15 national debate tournament championships. O’Keefe discussed ways the School of Communication plans to strengthen the program, including a new commitment by the Owen L. Coon Foundation to fund a second endowed professorship in the area of Policy Analysis and Communication. Unlike other debate programs, the School of Communication benefits from a curriculum in speech and debate communication.

“On behalf of the current debate team, I’d like to tell you how much we appreciate you, the alumni,” said Daniel J. Fitzmier (GC02, GC06), the current director of Debate and Forensics at Northwestern. “We try to win every tournament, every time, and that has a lot to do with the people in this room. It is our special privilege and our challenge to live up to your legacy.”

The induction ceremony and dinner, held at the James L. Allen Center, capped a weekend of events for debate alums, including a special debate session Saturday morning, which focused on how modern debaters work in the digital age. The theme of how debate has changed continued at the evening ceremony, where past and present debate coaches discussed changes in debate over time. David Zarefsky (C68, GC69, GC74), former dean of the School of Communication, professor emeritus of Communication Studies, and former director of the Debate Society, talked about how debate has changed significantly from its time in the 1950s.

“Up until the 1950s, men and women debated on separate teams,” he said. “Then, until 1966, the National Debate Tournament was held at West Point… where you could win other tournaments to gain an invitation to go… or you could simply be from West Point.”

That all changed when the American Forensic Association took over the tournament in 1967, allowing a more level playing field. Fitzmier talked about the current state of debate, and focused on the new note-less digital age and the new emphasis on speed.

“Sometimes, we’re accused of sounding like auctioneers,” Fitzmier said, adding that modern debaters have the challenge of finding a way to make arguments both compelling and concise. He also said that the rise of the Urban Debate League, which seeks to fund and support debate in urban schools, will become a watershed moment for debate, he said, as teams and programs across the country become more diverse.

Lauren Weinstein, who graduated from Northwestern in 2007 and now lives in Washington, D.C., said participating in debate during her undergraduate years was life-changing. She met her husband in debate, and it put her on her path to her career as an attorney at MoloLamken LLP.

“Northwestern Debate is like one big family,” she said. “It truly is, and that’s why we all came back today, because of how much this means to us.”

The first ever inductees into the Hall of Fame, all prestigious alumni from 1980 or earlier, included: Erwin Chemerinsky (C75), Mark Cotham (C79, GC79), David A. Copus (WCAS63), Michael L. Denger (C67), Donald Dripps (WCAS80), Tomas Fulkerson (WCAS80), Lee Huebner (WCAS62), Dennis Hunt (C61, L71), Richard D. Kirshberg (C61), Alan Loewinsohn (C76), Ronald L. Marmer (C74, GC74), Garry Mathiason (C68), Elliot Mincberg (WCAS74), John C. Roberts (C61), Stuart Singer (C78, GC78), William E. Snyder (C66, L69), William Welsh (J61, WCAS62, GWCAS65), Susan G. Winkler (C79, GC79), Christopher Wonnell (WCAS79), and David Zarefsky (C68, GC69, GC74).

After the ceremony, Wonnell said he was honored to be among the first inductees to the Debate Hall of Achievement.

“Debate meant the world to me,” said Wonnell, who now teaches at the School of Law at the University of San Diego. “I use it every day. I’m a law professor and every day I’m presenting arguments to my students, and using the skills I learned in debate.”

The dinner and induction ceremony was part of a two-day docket of events, which included the debate preparation talk, a Northwestern football game and tailgate party, and a Friday evening reception.


Lee Huebner listens to a speaker.


Richard Briggs, of the Owen L. Coon Foundation, amid the crowd.


David Zarefsky, formerly the debate director and dean of the School of Communication, enjoys the evening.


Two-time National Debate Tournament winner (’98 and ’99) Michael Gottlieb addresses the room.


Former Northwestern Debate Society director Thomas McClain is flanked by fellow former director Thomas Goodnight (left) and current director Daniel Fitzmier (right).

---Cara Lockwood