Every year, when spring comes to the Heights, the warmer weather and hordes of prospective students are joined by a 114-year-old tradition: the Fulton Debate.
The Fulton Debate is a showcase event between four members of the Fulton Debating Society, two on the affirmative side and two on the negative. It follows a policy debate format, but with shortened constructive speeches. The whole event runs about 50 minutes. In recent years, the topic has been related to current events, said Director of Debate John Katsulas.
The debaters can win the gold Fulton Prize or the silver Gargan Medal based on their speaking ability. The winner has his name painted on the wall of Gasson 305, the Fulton Debate room.
However, there is a disparity between the names on the wall and the official winners. In the early 1980s, when Dale Herbeck coached the team, he decided that if the same person won the Fulton Prize two years in a row, the winner of the Gargan Medal should have his name painted on the wall. Herbeck thought it would be better to have more medals on the wall, Katsulas said.
“It’s prestigious to be in the debate, but it’s more prestigious to win the debate and get your name on the wall,” Katsulas said. “That’s even more attractive than winning the gold medal.”
The debate generally consists of at least one debater from each division-novice, junior varsity, and varsity-and is slower and less technical than a typical policy debate because the judges are often professors with no prior debate experience, Katsulas said.
This is done intentionally so that the debaters are forced to speak persuasively. In this regard, novices often have a leg-up because they can be more skilled at judge adaptation and are less used to the rapid-fire style of policy debates, he said.
“They try to throw in some jokes, and they’re more animated since they’re trying to appeal to the judges and the students,” he said. “The debate is a lot more entertaining to watch than a regular debate just because there’s more pathos and humor in the debate.”
The Fulton Debating Society debates against other schools through three debate organizations-the American Debate Association, the Crossfire Association, and the National Debate Tournament Committee-all of which debate the same topic. The Society’s most difficult competitors in the Northeast are Harvard, Dartmouth, and Cornell, Katsulas said.
Sullivan McCormick, A&S ’15 won the Fulton Prize in 2013. He joined the team as a freshman after doing policy debate in high school because of Katsulas’ dedication to the Society and to the development of policy debate, he said. “When I won the award, I was extremely humbled to be a part of BC debate history and at the same time felt validated for the amount of time spent focusing on debate,” he said.
“A large part of the humility stemmed from having the opportunity to debate under the leadership of John Katsulas. I debated for Boston College because of Mr. Katsulas, and it’s impossible not to be inspired by his passion for the activity.”
McCormick’s favorite part of debate is the unlimited potential for self-improvement. There is always room to improve in research, strategy, and rhetoric, McCormick said. The Fulton Award gives student debaters something to strive for. The wall in Gasson 305 is an example of the tradition of BC debate, he said.
“The award is one that sets BC debate apart from other collegiate programs,” McCormick said. “No other program has the legacy and tradition attached to a debate program.”
In the 114 years since the first Fulton Debate, only five women have won the award. This is partially because there are far fewer women on the debate team-there are 20 members of the Fulton Society this year, and only three are women.
There’s a much higher rate of attrition among women in college debate than men. There are many theories for this trend: Some people say the style is too combative, Katsulas said.
The first woman to win the Fulton Prize was Jane Osborne McKnight in 1973, when she was a sophomore. She thought preparation was key to her win, in addition to the fact that being a woman was a novelty, she said.
“It is a very intense activity and not traditionally feminine,” McKnight said. “I was very proud to win.”
The best way to attract female college debaters is to recruit them in junior high and high school, said McKnight, who debated in high school for four years before coming to BC. Her experience on the debate team propelled her to master’s program at Harvard and an over 30-year legal career, she said.
“I am fond of saying that nearly everything I learned in higher education I learned in debate,” McKnight said.