To understand the full story of how Taylor Brough and Khalil Lee became national debate champions this spring, you have to go back to Halloween weekend at Harvard. It was at that tournament — one of the first in the season — that the UVM team stunned the collegiate debate world, putting forth an argument no one had ever seen.
In policy debate, the two-person teams rank their preferences for judges at each tournament, a system that attempts to address bias and create a fair competition. But the Vermont team, coached by Jillian Marty-Dushane ’04, noticed a troubling trend: judges of color and women very often ranked the lowest. So when Brough and Lee heard their opponents at Harvard make an argument in defense of these populations, they did something no team had ever done: they demanded that they disclose their judges rankings. How could this concern for women of color hold any water, their argument went, if their opponents weren’t willing to speak to and be judged by the group they were defending?
The Vermont team won the match, made it to the elimination rounds at the Harvard tournament, and caught the attention of the very best debaters in the country. And they did it by making debate not just a theoretical, academic exercise, but by holding the debate world accountable to the bias that has stacked the deck against a team like Brough and Lee — a Native American woman and an African-American man — since debate competitions began.
Over the course of the season, Brough and Lee’s team would become one of the top 16 in the country heading into the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) tournament in April. Making it all the way to semi-finals, the team was concerned to hear they’d face Stanford. But that fear broke for Lee when he found out that their opponent’s argument rested, in part, on a reading of Marvel’s Black Panther series. “They are not about to read comic books to me,” he remembers thinking, and handily defeated them with his encyclopedic knowledge of the comic in a speech Brough recounts as truly impressive.
That means something coming from Taylor Brough. After their team won the CEDA championship, Brough was named second speaker in the country at the other final match of the season, the National Debate Tournament. “Tay has learned to communicate in such a way that shows her brilliance,” her coach says.
While Brough’s 10-plus years of experience and technical prowess are a cornerstone of the team’s success, Lee, a novice just last year, has a gift for finding an opening in the other team’s argument. “One thing I am very good at,” he says, “is hearing arguments and applying it to ours, and that’s what’s called a link, and that’s the only way you can win a debate. If you can’t link, you just spoke for two hours for nothing.”
“One of our biggest strengths as a team,” Brough says, “is that both of us think of the world, the academy and debate in really different ways, which has been difficult for us, in some ways, but it’s been really important because it’s allowed us to create in debates a real diversity of arguments.”
To become best in the nation takes some degree of raw talent, but also incredible amounts of work. Brough gestures to an actual suitcase of evidence they wheel into each round and talks about the massive amount of reading and digesting that went into its creation. But beyond the academic rigor of the experience, the team also draws other benefits from the way they approach debate.
“It teaches us to be better people,” Lee says. “We’re reading things about sexism, racism, ableism, anti-blackness, anti-queerness — all these instances of ontological violence embedded in society.”
It’s a focus that would make legendary debate coach Alfred “Tuna” Snider proud. Snider, who passed away in December, promoted debate as a place to “speak truth to power.”
“I wish he was here to see it,” says Marty-Dushane, who was coached by Snider herself as a UVM debater. The CEDA win was the first national championship for a Vermont policy debate team in more than 50 years. “He would have been so happy and so excited.”
Beyond the win, what’s also exciting about the team’s work is change it's creating. “What we’ve seen is that a lot of debaters have changed their judge preferences — to, you know, avoid the argument,” their coach says. “But that also means that they’re respecting us and respecting that we will bring this argument into the debate, and we will win on this argument.”
“That’s why the debate world loves us,” Marty-Dushane says. “We’re always pushing innovation."