In a political campaign, debate performance can make or break a candidate’s chances of success. On the intercollegiate level, debate performance makes or breaks student success at competitions, on a national stage.

As politicians gear up for the 2016 presidential debate cycle, the University of Michigan’s Debate Team, led by Director Aaron Kall, is dominating debate on the intercollegiate level.

“Every few years when the debate cycle is in full gear, debate suddenly becomes important to the nation. The debates we have are somewhat similar to those presidential and gubernatorial debates. In both cases, you have people debating at the highest level, thinking on their feet on the largest stage, for the highest stakes, whether it’s the nomination or a tournament,” Kall says.

U-M’s debate team has finished second at the National Debate Tournament for the past two years in a row.

Aaron Kall is director of U-M’s Debate Program and Michigan Debate Institutes. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Although he’s had historic success with Michigan’s debate team, Kall didn’t always plan on a career in debate.

“I definitely caught the debate bug in high school,” he says. “When I continued in college I realized I wanted to help students reach the highest levels as a coach.”

Michigan has been a part of Kall’s plan since high school. When Kall attended U-M’s high school summer debate program in 1994 and ’95, he knew he had found something special.

“I immediately loved the university, the town, everything. I tried to get back as soon as I could.”

Kall, a Florida native, competed and coached at the University of Kentucky’s debate program for the next several years. In 2002, Kall joined Michigan’s program as assistant director. “I knew that I wanted to be here,” he says.

Now, as director of the Debate Program and the Michigan Debate Institutes (the same summer program he attended as a high schooler), Kall helps bring the best high school debate talent in the country to Ann Arbor. Every summer, the institutes attract more than 300 top high school debaters.

 In providing exposure to Michigan’s extensive resources and faculty, the institutes motivate many high school debaters to attend Michigan and join the team.

“My job is made easier because a lot of Michigan sells itself,” Kall says. “We’re one of the best public schools in the country, and for incoming students who want to be part of the debate team, they can have a well-rounded college experience as well.”

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Kall has seen big changes in the debate field, especially with regards to technology, since his high school debating days. 

“We used to photocopy all of our evidence and carry around tubs of evidence. Now, every debater has a laptop and we can even live-stream the championships online. We had alumni watching us at the national tournament from all over the country. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Kall says he is constantly motivated by his talented students.

“It’s very rewarding to see students succeeding at school, at their competitions and then to follow their career paths and arcs. You can witness that success in real time.”