Kuntal Cholera, a senior economics major at UNT, was named the top speaker at this year's National Debate Tournament, ranking above 155 of the nation's top collegiate debaters who were attending the tournament.
Focusing on policy debate, the National Debate Tournament was founded in 1947 as the national championship tournament for college debate. This year's tournament was held at the University of Texas at Austin. Seventy-eight two-student teams participated.
Cholera and his partner on the UNT Debate Squad, freshman biological sciences major Grant Peretz, were selected for the tournament with an automatic bid based on its top 16 ranking by a committee. The two finished 12th in the National Debate Tournament — ahead of any other team from a Texas college or university.
Cholera is the first student from a Texas college or university to be named the tournament's top speaker in 22 years. He received a gold watch and a traveling trophy engraved with the names of all other past top speakers, which include the former dean of Northwestern University's School of Speech, Los Angeles' high conviction rate prosecutor and a public administration expert who is the author of a best-selling textbook in the field. The traveling trophy will be displayed at UNT for one year.
The topic for this year's debate was whether the U.S. government should substantially reduce its agricultural support for biofuels, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, corn, cotton, dairy, fisheries, rice, soybeans, sugar and/or wheat. Students must debate both the pro and the con sides.
The top speaker award caps four years of awards that Cholera, a 2004 graduate of Clear Lake High School near Houston, has received during his four years on the UNT Debate Squad.
He was also named the top speaker at the University of Texas at Dallas District III Tournament and the 2008 Franklin R. Shirley Dixie Classic at Wake Forest University in November, which attracted 274 students and is one of the nation's largest tournaments. He represented UNT at the 2006, 2007 and 2008 National Debate Tournaments. Cholera won the top speaker awards at the District III Tournaments in 2007 and 2008, and finished among the top 15 speakers at the 2008 National Debate Tournament. In addition, he has been ranked among the top 10 speakers at numerous tournaments.
"In debate, there is no real ceiling to what you can do," says Cholera, who began debating as a high school freshman. "The competition and intellectual challenge drove me to succeed. In a lot of ways, debate is like an athletic competition because you have shifts in momentum during the discussion."
Brian Lain, UNT assistant professor of communication studies and coach of the UNT Debate Squad, says the National Debate Tournament can be compared to the NCAA basketball tournament, with most of the teams qualifying by winning their district tournaments and the rest receiving at-large bids based on tournament performances during the past academic year.
"In terms of March Madness, you could say that UNT was the 12th seed and part of the Sweet Sixteen," he says. He noted that while each participating team can only logistically compete against teams from eight other universities during the tournament's preliminary debates, speaker points evaluate students across the entire field.
"Judges assign these points by asking how good an individual debater is compared to all others," Lain says. "The top speaker award is the Heisman Trophy of academic debate."
After receiving his bachelor's degree from UNT on May 16, Cholera will coach debate at UT-Dallas, which had a team that finished 19th in this year's competition. He plans to enter law school at Columbia University in the fall of 2010, possibly focusing on human rights or patent litigation in his law career.
Nancy Kolsti with UNT News Service can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.