Photo courtesy of Michigan Debate Program.

University of Michigan students don’t just have the football team to cheer for. Earlier this month University debate duo LSA junior Kelly Phil and LSA senior Rafael Pierry won the 66th annual Franklin R. Shirley Classic with an undefeated record of 11-0.

The tournament, hosted by Wake Forest University, is considered the fall championship due to its status as the last debate tournament of the fall collegiate schedule. Phil and Pierry went on to beat teams from institutions such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Emory, winning the tournament with a final win over host Wake Forest University.

This season is the first in which Phil and Pierry have worked together as debate partners, and Phil said she thinks they work well together as a team.

“He’s very motivated to win the national championship from March, and last year I wasn’t as successful as him,” Phil said. “Being partners with him this year, it’s reminded me that this is kind of the year where I can also win it all. And that’s really motivated me as well. So because our goals are aligned, it’s been really easy to work together.”

Aaron Kall, the debate director for the University, said he was thrilled with the pair’s  performance throughout the fall semester. 

“I’m elated with the performance, just given that it’s such a major tournament, and it’s the last major tournament of the first semester,” Kall said. “So it really provides a lot of momentum for us heading into the second semester.”

Pierry said their performance from the tournament gives them a confidence boost as he and Phil prepare for the next semester of tournaments.

“It’s really nice getting to spend that Winter Break period, where you’re preparing for the next wave of tournaments, coming off a good result,” Pierry said. “It’s also good because it solidifies the perception that you’re doing well amongst the debate community as a whole. They remember us as the team that won the last tournament, so it’s a good feeling to close out strong.”

Phil said the victories this semester have helped take a weight off her shoulders going into Winter Break.

“It really feels like we’ve ended the season on a good note and going into Winter Break, we can really know that we’re in the best position we can be,” Phil said. “So it takes a lot of weight off of our shoulders, I think, whereas if we didn’t do as well, then going into Winter Break, we would have to try really hard and make up for whatever we didn’t do this semester.”

The pair currently have a 41-4 record entering the winter semester.

Phil said the debate team has given her a lot of opportunities throughout her time at the University and encouraged students from a wide range of backgrounds and majors to look into the team.  

“There were some members of the debate team that were computer science majors and math majors in the past,” Phil said. “So I don’t think it’s completely incompatible with the subjects that (different students) might be interested in.”

Phil said the current debate topics often overlap with the interests of STEM majors.

“I had to learn from the ground up what all these basic AI concepts were,” Phil said. “Whereas if you’re already a computer science major, then it’ll probably be way easier for someone to really learn and understand a topic much faster. So I think, especially this year, there are a lot of topics that overlap with what STEM majors might be interested in.”

Pierry said they were not intimidated by the prestige of their competition, which included teams from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Dartmouth who have previously won the championship.

“(Kelly and I) tend to know most of our competitors at an individual level, so we don’t really think of them as the school,” Pierry said. “We know them; we’ve debated them many times before. I think we’ve debated Dartmouth something like five or more times this semester alone. So I wouldn’t really say it’s intimidating.”

Phil said she didn’t have any doubts about her and Pierry’s performance before any matches.

“I think that while going into the tournaments, there haven’t been any big doubts,” Phil said. “In terms of skill, we felt pretty confident that we could do well.”

Phil and Pierry compete in Policy Debate, a form of debate in which competitors propose policies related to a topic, which remains the same for the entire year. This year, the topic was extending legal personhood, the idea of having rights and responsibilities in the legal system. Pierry said he and Phil focused on artificial intelligence when arguing in favor of the topic. He said their argument focused on making AI liable for crimes. 

“I think we approached it pretty creatively given what the topic has presented us,” Phil said. “(We) made a lot of new arguments before other teams had in terms of new frontiers for AI rights and duties … I think all in all, we’re really taking advantage of the broad nature of everything we can do with the resolution.”

In approaching the national championship, Pierry said that teams will usually hold off from presenting their best arguments until the final, opting to instead present weaker arguments during the regular season.

 “This is the point of the season where teams will start working on and saving arguments for the (national championship), even though it’s months away,” Pierry said. “They’ll go through winter tournaments deliberately not reading their best strategies, because they’re waiting for the national debate tournament to happen and really to go all out for that.” 

Phil said she and Pierry will take that same approach when preparing for their winter tournaments over break.

“We’ll try to, if possible, have some ideas for what we want to read at the national championship,” Phil said. “And once we have a good idea of that, we’ll probably try to find things that are not as good as those ideas but still new arguments to surprise people. Obviously we’ll save our best arguments for the national tournament itself.”

Both Phil and Pierry said they’ve gained much from their time with the University Debate Program.

“It gives me a huge time investment that can be a positive thing to focus on and have a driving ambition or motivation that’s getting me through college,” Pierry said. “It’s a community where there’s other debaters that have similar interests and tend to follow similar academic pathways. Plus, it’s a natural friend group.”

The debate duo’s second semester will start with a Jan. 4 tournament at Georgetown University. The National Debate Championship will open on March 31, 2023.

Daily Staff Reporter Joshua Nicholson can be reached at