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MIT Debaters Take First at Harvard

By Jennifer DeBoer

Patrick J. Nichols ’03 and Adam G. Unikowsky ’03 edged out 141 other teams at the Harvard Debate Tournament to earn the first place trophy, MIT’s best finish ever.

“I was still in shock that we got that far,” Unikowsky said. To reach the tournament’s finals, held on October 6, the team had to overcome Princeton University’s A and B teams in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, respectively. In both cases, “MIT Flippant” (Unikowsky and Nichols) won by a unanimous decision of the judges, 3-0 in the quarterfinal round and 5-0 in semifinal round.

Before the final rounds, there are five rounds of debating to narrow down the field. In these rounds, MIT Flippant won four out of five, falling only to a Yale novice team. With such a performance, MIT Flippant, as well as MIT A, which consists of Debate Club President Philippe C. Larochelle ’03 and Raj Krishnan ’02, “broke” to quarterfinal rounds. Nichols said that this is the first time in recent memory that MIT has broken at the Harvard Tournament.

Flippant fares well as government

In each of the final three rounds, MIT played the role of the government in the debate, whose style emulates that of the British Parliament. As government, the team puts forth the topic to be debated and has the burden of proof. Unikowsky said that this is often seen as a disadvantage.

Before an audience of 200, MIT Flippant presented a case in the final round which asked whether or not a newly formed religion would benefit from having a leader.

Although 12 of the 13 judges voted for Nichols and Unikowsky over Stanford University’s Team A, Unikowsky and Nichols knew that they had won before they received the verdict. “The audience cheered a lot louder for our points than for theirs, so we basically knew during the round that we had won,” Unikowsky said.

“It was great to pick up the trophy,” said Nichols, “especially since we weren’t one of the well recognized teams going into the tournament.”

Team has unusual background

“The vast majority of our competitors are pre-law and we’re all computer science or physics majors,” Nichols said. “It’s gratifying for us to know that even though we’re not studying constitutional law we can still be competitive.”

In the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s biggest tournament of the year, MIT was the only technical school in the entire field, which includes all of the Ivy League, as well as top west coast schools such as Stanford and sometimes schools from Canada. “The fact that MIT, the lone technical school, is able to perform against people who do this as their major is very impressive,” Larochelle said.

A further disadvantage arises from the nature of the cases. Nichols said that scientific cases are never run because their subject is usually too specific. “We’re usually competing on their turf,” he said.

Flippant forced to think on feet

In two of the final three rounds, the cases put forth by MIT were invented just minutes before the rounds, as they ran out of prepared cases after the quarterfinal round. “We had talked about the ideas for the last two cases a little bit, but most of the planning was done in the fifteen minutes before the round,” Unikowsky said.

“You become really proficient at impromptu speaking,” Nichols said.

Nichols never debated before coming to college, and Unikowsky only had one year of experience prior to joining MIT’s team.

Going in to the tournament, expectations were not quite as high as the final results. “We really had no chance of winning,” Unikowsky said. “Our goal was to be in the top fifteen.”

MIT Flippant was not the only MIT showing in the final rounds. Krishnan and Larochelle finished 7th overall and MIT had four of the top ten individual speaker scores (individual scores awarded during debates to each competitor). Larochelle finished fourth, Nichols eighth, Krishnan ninth, and Unikowsky tenth.

Neither Nichols or Unikowsky felt pressure to perform. “Before we weren’t really looked on as one of the top schools,” Nichols said. “We’ve improved a lot in the past few years.”

Victory boosts national standing

As a result of their victory, MIT Flippant was ranked as the number one team in the nation last week. Because they did not attend tournaments this past weekend, they are now number three. Last year, MIT A, which consisted of Amit Roy ’01 and Krishnan, placed tenth.

Because the Harvard tournament is so big, some see it as a projection of nationals. “It’s about as big a tournament as things get,” Nichols said. “It will be the same field at nationals.”

Upcoming tournaments that the team will attend include Columbia, Brown, and Brandeis. These tournaments, though not quite as large, will be worth the same number of points for national standing, and will include many of the same top competitors who attended the Harvard tournament. “Hopefully they won’t want revenge,” Nichols said.