Neither David Altman ’15 nor Brad Burns ’15 participated in debate activities during high school. However, years after leaving their respective hometowns of Newton and Beverly, MA, they have become staples of the Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society, also known affectionately by its acronym BADASS.
Having both served as BADASS presidents, they are no strangers to the team. BADASS is currently the top debate team in the country, and is one of the only top-tier debate teams that doesn’t require tryouts. Both Altman and Burns rose from novice to the presidency along different paths.
“I saw a flyer on my hall, for a debate demo round. I attended and thought it was really enjoyable. The people were great, and I remember that the debate was very interesting. I liked the team, I was debating most weekends, and I served on the E-board in my first year. I wanted to continue doing that and moving up, and I ended up winning an uncontested election for president at the end of January of my sophomore year,” Altman said.
Burns, recalling his own rise, said, “I spent three years being really involved on the team, and while I ultimately loved it, I thought it could offer me and the university a lot more. Honestly, I was really interested in getting debate members more involved in the campus community. People don’t necessarily know the team, so that was something I wanted to change. I desired to get people more involved in debate events and to get debaters more involved in campus events.”
Altman and Burns are both also highly involved in encouraging debate at the high school level. “There’s this great organization called the Boston Debate League (BDL), which is an urban debate league for primarily low-income [students] serving middle and high schools. During my freshman year, I went as a volunteer judge to a tournament. I got progressively more involved, and soon a man named Avi Bernstein-Nahar from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI) approached the team and helped to put together a Brandeis hosted tournament for the BDL,” Altman explained.
“David’s more involved than I am, but for the past two years we’ve put on the BDL event here on campus and it’s been very successful. It’s been great to be able to bring the students here, give them a tour of the university and let them know that a great school like Brandeis is truly within their reach,” Burns added, who is the director of operations for the Brandeis Mentors for Urban Debate.
Recently, Altman and Burns attended and competed at the 2015 World Universities Debating Championship. This year’s tournament was hosted in Malaysia, having previously been hosted in countries such as India, Germany, the Philippines and Botswana. More than 400 teams of two come together for the tournament, conducted in English, to debate it out and eventually crown the best university debate team in the world. “We debated everything from family dynamics, to whether the U.S. government should cut internet access to Syria, to whether individuals should take moral enhancement drugs and should the medical technology come to exist,” Altman said.
This year Brandeis was ranked 69th, placing ahead of other U.S. teams such as Brown and Columbia. The University of Sydney was declared world champion after the final rounds of elimination. Brandeis has sent teams the past few years. “[Brad and I] had a good team dynamic. We’re pretty laid back as debaters, and we have similar perspectives,” Altman said. “We’ve known each other since freshman year on the debate team, and we debate a few times a year, although when we started, we were just utter dorks.”
Altman says that he is very pleased with BADASS, noting that there exists a good balance of interests held among a very friendly group of people that also work to teach one another. He also commented that he is thankful for the generous funding the university provides, which helps facilitate the team’s ability to fully compete.
Burns attributes much of the team’s success to the extent at which older members of the team help newer members learn the ropes of debate. He also stated that he is thankful that the culture of BADASS has changed over time, noting, “People don’t feel that debate is the only thing they have to do on campus.”
As for the future, Altman jokingly suggested a career as debate emperor, but more seriously indicates a desire for being involved in public sector work, combining academic legal pursuits with real world interests. “I still need to pass volleyball to graduate, though.”
Burns plans to pursue graduate school and further his study of Chinese history, hoping to go into academia, remarking, “The funny thing is that when you want to go to academia, you’ve got to be open to go anywhere that’ll offer you a job. My future is very open in that respect.”