Northwestern Debate Society takes top prize at the NDT in a record-breaking year

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April 07, 2015

It’s official: the Northwestern Debate Society is Fifteen in ’15.

Seniors Arjun Vellayappan and Alex Miles took top honors at the 2015 National Debate Tournament this week, the 15th win for Northwestern in the history of the tournament.

The Northwestern team won 3-2 in the final round against a team from the University of Michigan.

Vellayappan and Miles, both seniors, also took home the coveted Rex Copeland Award, the prize for the team with the best record entering the tournament. The pair also won the Copeland last year. This year’s win makes them only the second team in the NDT history to win the Copeland twice.

A second team of Connor O'Brien and Robel Worku, both juniors, reached the eighth round of the tournament.

This week’s win helps maintain Northwestern’s status as “the winningest” team in the NDT; the nearest competitors, Harvard University and Dartmouth College, have both won six titles each.

Northwestern’s tradition of success in debate is longstanding, said Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication, which funds and administers the Northwestern Debate Society.

“Debate has been a central activity at Northwestern almost since its founding in 1851—we had active debating societies by 1855 and an intercollegiate team in 1872, a decade before we had a football team,” she said. “Over this span of history we have won more National Debate Tournaments than any other program, but this victory—number 15 in 2015—may be the most satisfying. We are very proud of the achievement of Alex, Arjun, and the many other members of the team who contributed to their success.”

This is the second NDT win during the head coaching tenure of Dan Fitzmier (GC02, GC06), a senior lecturer in the School of Communication.

As the coach of the Copeland Award-winning team, Fitzmier also takes home the James John Unger Prize for the fourth time. He was the inaugural Unger Award winner in 2009. Over the course of his career, he has coached ten different teams in the finals of the National Debate Tournament, including the tournament champions in 2011, 2005, 2003, 2002 (all Northwestern), and 2000 (Emory University).

The team is also supported by associate director Andrea Reed, several alumni of the program (including a few with NDT pedigrees of their own), and a full complement of up-and-coming student debaters.

The 2014-15 debate year has been a good one for the team. The duo of Vellayappan and Miles, both students in the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences, won the Harvard Debate Tournament in the fall—for the fifth consecutive year. “No other university has won the tournament in back-to-back years, much less three, four, or five times,” said Fitzmier. “It’s one of those unlikely-to-be-broken type records.”

The team of Vellayappan and Miles also won the Wake Forest University Tournament in November without losing a single debate.

In fact, Vellayappan, in winning at Wake Forest this academic year, reached another unlikely-to-be-broken milestone. He has won the Wake Forest tournament trophy, known as the Franklin R. Shirley trophy, all four years of his college career. This is a feat so remarkable that there is a serious movement to rename the trophy after Vellayappan. “These are Michael Jordan-esque numbers in the debate world,” Fitzmier said.

Northwestern University has the oldest continuous debate program in the country.