Rapid Rise to the Top for Rutgers University-Newark Debaters

By Rob Forman for Rutgers Today

Chris Randall and Elijah Smith of Rutgers University-Newark were the fifth-ranked policy debate team in the nation during the 2013-14 season. Photo: Shelley Kusnetz.

For 68 years, the National Debate Tournament has drawn top collegiate debaters from schools across the country. This year, for the very first time, Rutgers University-Newark sent a team to that tournament.

Eighty schools were in the running when the competition in Bloomington, Indiana, began. By the time Rutgers debaters Chris Randall and Elijah Smith lost narrowly to the Georgetown team that would win the tournament, they had made it to the quarterfinals — the top eight.

It was a significant achievement for a school that didn’t even have a debate team until six years ago, and it followed a 2013-14 intercollegiate debate season in which Randall and Smith placed an impressive fifth in the country — the first all African-American duo ever to finish so high in an activity where white faces have long been seen as the rule.

“It did take people off guard. It was shocking to a lot of people how a squad of students they’d never heard of before would just come onto the scene and do historic things,” says Christopher R. Kozak, director of debate at Rutgers University-Newark and the team’s coach.

Smith, who begins his senior year in the fall, started debating while he was a high school student in Newark, encouraged by a faculty member at University High School who saw debate as an outlet for his academic talents and curiosity. Smith’s first competitions beyond the inner city took him to a world he had not seen. “It was weird going to tournaments and not seeing people who look like you,” he says, “getting judged by people who don’t look like you, who don’t necessarily hold the same views or come from the same cultural tradition as you.”

Randall, who also has just finished his junior year, was similarly drawn into debate while in high school in Baltimore. One reason he chose to attend college in Newark was that he had come to know Smith on the mid-Atlantic high school debate circuit, and was impressed both by Smith and by a growing debate tradition in Newark that Smith represents. The city of Newark also felt a lot like home. “Newark and Baltimore are in many ways sister cities,” Randall explains. “I wanted energy like Baltimore’s.”

Debating From Where They Live

Their backgrounds give both Smith and Randall experience with issues that they feel other debaters only know in theory. While most debate opponents are “well meaning and well intentioned,” says Randall, “their lives are so sheltered and safe that they can’t really wrap their head around people being un-safe. A lot of people who debate gun policy have never had a friend shot. You need to bring people to where you are in order for them to understand it.”

Kozak says that Smith and Randall are especially skilled at cross-examination, asking questions that expose holes in an opponent’s argument that the adversary didn’t even know existed. “The way they win debates is their ability to directly engage the other team,” says Kozak.

The coach adds that Smith and Randall have far more than life experience on their side. They also go to debates very well prepared. “The research they do is the equivalent of what is needed for a master’s thesis,” says Kozak, “so we have undergraduates doing the equivalent of graduate work.”

Randall and Smith both say the rigor of debate has served them well in their Rutgers coursework. Smith, who is majoring in public service with a concentration in political science, says, “if you can research a 10-minute speech against Harvard University in 45 minutes, then you can write a five-page paper in two hours.” Randall, whose major is international relations and public service, is convinced that his experience has prepared him well for law school.

Both champion debaters are already thinking about their common legacy. Smith and Randall are coaching high school debaters, as well as younger members of the Rutgers University-Newark team. “What I want to leave behind is a belief that because something is difficult does not make it impossible,” says Randall. “Difficult takes a day and impossible takes a week. I always try to teach kids that regardless of any advantages you don’t have, that disadvantage can be an advantage.”