La Verne’s debate team celebrates a century-long tradition

Moving with one mind, partners Carl Decker and Sam French construct a precise argument. The pair took first place in the Dec. 2 University of California, Davis Debate Tournament. / photo by Mitchell Aleman

Moving with one mind, partners Carl Decker and Sam French construct a precise argument. The pair took first place in the Dec. 2 University of California, Davis Debate Tournament. / photo by Mitchell Aleman

by Lauren Creiman
photography by Mitchell Aleman

Thirty pairs of solemn eyes peered out from freshly scrubbed faces, their conservatism and maturity betrayed by the tightly pressed lips that held back youthful smiles. These men and women crowded together March 11, 1912, to take a photograph, one that would document a historic day: the Lordsburg Academy’s first public debate. Of the 30 gathered there, 14 members were women, who debated whether capital punishment should be abolished in a time when they did not have the right to vote on such a matter.

Exactly 100 years later, students, staff and alumni of the University of La Verne gather to honor the legacy of their program and to debate the very same topic, which remains as controversial now as then, recast as California Proposition 34. Over a century, La Verne Debate, with some dips and turns, has nevertheless remained as a viable University program; in recent years, it has established itself as a national, even emerging world class program.

A complicated history, untangled

The modern era of debate started in 1981 under the curriculum design of the late Robert Rivera, who is known within the Speech Communication Department as the “contemporary father of La Verne debate.” Rivera came to La Verne following early retirement from Los Angeles Valley College. He was recruited by La Verne Communications Department Chair Esther Davis, former head of the L.A. Valley College Communications Department. Rivera entered La Verne with the full support of University of La Verne President Armen Sarafian. Soon, his teaching talent and the administrative resources of performance scholarships started to pay off with student trophies.

Rivera, an ardent Toastmaster and former community college theater director, quickly brought attention to his fledgling La Verne program. Under his La Verne reign as director of forensics, La Verne Debate qualified for the National Debate Tournament for the first time in 1988 and competed in the World Debating Championship in Oxford for the first time in 1993. Press releases recount heady days of beating Harvard, Yale and the Pomona Colleges in debate. “Bob was the first person to take the program in a different direction,” says Ian Lising, current speech communication department chair. “He was the first to push La Verne to compete with the ‘big boys,’ as he put it.” Before then, Ian says, the team had only competed regionally and had no national or international presence. “The team’s invitations to Worlds in Oxford in 1993 was a turning point; we owe that all to Bob. One way that we’ve honored him is by making sure that we haven’t missed a single Worlds since.”

The shining era of Rivera was dimmed in the years following his leadership. Although several revered debaters were recruited during that time, the program nonetheless gained a reputation that negated much of Rivera’s hard work in bringing prestige to the program. “Bob stepped into a teaching role and did not have direct contact with the debate team. The Communications Department resorted to hiring part-time debate directors, with mixed results,” says George Keeler, present day communications department chair.

The Speech Department separated from the Communications Department in 2000 and opened a new major under the leadership of Department Chair Jeanne Flora. Keeler says one of his last acts for the debate team was the hiring of Ian Lising in 1999. “I knew that Ian was going to turn the program around,” says Keeler. “His credentials were stellar, but more important, he had a superb ethical compass.”

As it turned out, Lising took the helm and did more than just sustain the program; he led it to new levels of excellence. “I was brought on board to usher in a new age and culture,” Ian says. “I understood three things: First, seemingly irreparable damage had been done to debate’s reputation with the administration, students, team and the debating community at large. Second, we didn’t have a big name for ourselves in the debating community. Third, I came from my own successful background; when I was at Ateneo de Manila University, we were consistently ranked in the top five teams. I wanted to make sure La Verne was identified as a success in their own manner.” Ian’s resume speaks volumes about his accomplishments, but it is his character that is key to his success. He is soft-spoken and reserved upon first impression; a man of high morals and unfailing determination, not exactly what one expects from a debater. Yet, in a debate or speech scenario, Ian becomes a different man; a dynamic scene-stealer who speaks with conviction and often shocks his audience with an extreme stance. A paradox of a man, Ian embodies the kind of spirit needed to take La Verne Debate to the next level.

Just one year after he joined the La Verne faculty, La Verne Debate was a grand finalist at tournaments in Oxford and Cambridge and made it to the grand final at Worlds in Sydney. “The first time we broke at Worlds is among my most treasured memories,” says Ian. “The buzz that was going around the University and how the team handled themselves…everything I hoped for our culture to be was beginning.” Alumnus Nathan Baca, a CBS 8 News Now reporter for KLAS Las Vegas, debated with La Verne from 2000-2003. Fondly, in typical debate style, he recalls a slightly different memory. “One of our teams went up against Oxford’s best debate team, on their home turf, and we won the round. That moment dispelled any myth of invincibility of the other major colleges. We could go head-to-head with any university and do well, due in part to the fact that ULV had enough faith in us to send us in there to do it and succeed.”

The team has accumulated a collection of awards and trophies that would make an honor student envious; yet, debaters and coaches alike emphasize that building that collection is not the team’s ultimate goal. More treasured are their memories, which tell a greater tale of La Verne Debate’s progress than any trophy can possibly reveal.

Such is Ian’s story of the moment he knew “La Verne had made it.” “I was at an Oxford tournament in 2001. La Verne had been doing very well. I remember overhearing a conversation between two debaters from different countries; I believe one was Irish and the other was Scottish. I heard one ask, ‘Where is this La Verne?’ and the other one immediately responded, ‘Oh, it’s 30 miles east of Los Angeles.’ That was the moment I knew we had put La Verne on the map,” he says. “But then, a few years later at Worlds, a debater from India turned to an Australian and asked, ‘Where’s Claremont?’ to which the Australian responded, ‘Oh, it’s by La Verne.’” This moment is remembered fondly by Ian, for it marks La Verne’s transition from a relatively unknown school in the international debate realm to being the compass by which other schools are placed on a map.

Director of Forensics Rob Ruiz led as student debate captain before he took the helm. Rob earned his undergraduate degree at La Verne and earned accolades on the debate team shortly after Ian took hold of the program, serving as its captain from 2003-2004. He played an instrumental role in the team’s success during those years, Ian says, adding, “another key moment of my debate career was at a National Championship semifinals. Rob and his partner Josh Martin were in that round debating eco-terrorism. I even remember the motion: ‘This house believes humans should have the right to kill other humans to protect other species.’ Rob and Josh went so hard-line in their position that it shocked everyone, and they won based on that.” This shock factor is simply part of his style; Rob, who holds his own as easily among administrators as he does his debaters, tends to speak more directly than many of his peers, with a dynamic quality that leaves an impression on those who hear him.

Things came full circle for Rob in 2011 when he was named director of forensics after Ian assumed department chair status. Nathan, Rob’s partner in his first debate tournament in 2002, says, “It was great being on the team with him, and to see how much he has grown since then…he had such drive and jumped full-in to what he was doing. It was very heartening. It’s great to see the program in capable hands.” Since 2009, Rob has served as a part-time faculty member. He says he was thrilled to succeed Ian. “Ian believes that debate can create people and draw out their untapped potential. It was his vision to make debate, which has always been so exclusive, merge with the rest of campus. When I took over, there were only about eight or nine debaters. Now there’s approximately 37. The program is growing because of Ian’s vision; I’m just helping to carry it out.” It is a vision Rob carries out with help from John Patrick, professor of speech communication and an alumnus of ULV and debate. John, who has served as the team’s coach since 2009, says of debate, “Anyone can do it. It’s part of human nature; pros vs. cons, right vs. wrong…most already have debate skills because they do it all the time. They probably just don’t realize it.”

The reward of hard won honors came when Rob and Ian received proud news that the University of La Verne won the bid to host the 2013 National Debate Championship this spring. The process was exhausting, Rob says, and had been in the works since he became director of forensics. “It’s a great honor for this program after how much we have struggled, and it will really cement our presence in the debate community.” Such prestige has drawn vocal and physical support from President Devorah Lieberman, herself a speech communications major, which is something that Rob says is key to the continued success of the program. “With President Lieberman’s support, the sky is the limit for what we can accomplish.” Rob admits that the team’s recent boom results from more than just administrative support. The program, he says, has become more structured. The team now practices three or four days a week and through the entire summer to prepare its debaters. “The only months we don’t practice are January and June. We’re ingraining the idea that debate isn’t just extracurricular, but a part of everyday life. Some of our debaters even teach the lectures in the debate class to cement their knowledge of the practices. These things are small improvements, but they are instrumental to the continued success of the program.”

Natalie Holland, sophomore communications major, says that making sacrifices is par for the course. “I have had to dedicate a lot of my time to debate and have had to adjust my schedule and social circles to accommodate debate practice and debate life. There’s also a certain level of stress associated with debate that can weigh me down from time-to-time. But I’d say that the stresses of debate are only present because I love it so much.” Form and speech ability aside, a fundamental requirement for debate success is thorough current event knowledge. La Verne keeps its debaters fresh with new programs. A faculty lecture series is held every Thursday that allows faculty to teach their areas of expertise or interest. An “issues” tournament will start this summer, focusing first on women’s issues. The program is also attempting to establish its presence in the research world. “Our goal is to make La Verne the source of information about our format,” John says. Students, such as Carl Decker, senior biology and speech communication major, and faculty alike are working on publishing research papers. “We want to be synonymous with producing knowledge about debate, and we’re on our way,” John says.

The debate culture defined

More important than the awards earned and even the memories made is personal development. Rob and John, like Ian, want debate to be an experience that influences students after they trade in classrooms for corporate offices, more like a cultural identity than a membership to a club. “We’re trying to translate what we do here into civic duty and life in general,” Rob says. “Yeah, it’s cool to win tournaments, but what can you really do with that?” Like a true debater, John adds, “If we invest in the right students in the right way, we can take them from selfish young adults to selfless, community-oriented, engaged people. That’s really what this is all about.”

Carl also sees debate as a vehicle to achieving results of grander proportions. “Thanks to debate, I have had my faith restored in people’s abilities to change who they are,” he says. “Debate put me back in a place where you talk about people whose lives matter. By having to research these things, you become connected, and these issues matter to you on a personal level you could never have anticipated.”

Ian acknowledges that success still matters to the program, but the debate spirit reigns supreme. “We’re truly a Hollywood story in that we came out of nowhere into this national and international arena where we took everyone by surprise. This has created an expectation of great success among the debaters, so we have higher standards for ourselves now.” However, the mindset that results from debating is what really matters, says Ian. “We have a basic philosophy for our program: we look at the spirit of La Verne debaters for what they can be, instead of what they think they are. As a general rule, if you think yourself to at least be at someone’s level, you’ll work twice as hard to make yourself better.” Nathan Baca cites his involvement with debate as a foundation for his post-college success in broadcast journalism. “What’s it done for me? Well, it helps in arguments with my wife,” he jokes. “Seriously, though, debate gives you a global perspective—not only do you actually visit the world, but you learn how to make and understand arguments from all perspectives. Debate is perfect for every other class and major; it broadens your horizons and encourages you to be more curious. It’s the perfect interdisciplinary study.”

Though Carl has only been part of the team for a year, he says, “Debate makes you a better person. The more you know about the world, the better decisions you can make about it. The argumentation and form is just the show; after a certain point you’re changed, and you’re just an actor in this larger story. It’s f***ing great.”

ULV Debater Carl Decker calls an opponent’s POI to hear what she has to say about his comments regarding the Western involvement in the Middle East. Decker placed fifth out of a total of 32 teams at the World Universities Peace Invitational hosted at the University of La Verne’s Sneaky Park. / photo by Mitchell Aleman

ULV debater Carl Decker calls an opponent’s POI to hear what she has to say about his comments regarding the Western involvement in the Middle East. Decker placed fifth out of a total of 32 teams at the World Universities Peace Invitational hosted at the University of La Verne’s Sneaky Park. / photo by Mitchell Aleman