Debate team makes it through Zoom era to win USC’s biggest title in 30 years


USC’s recent debating dominance in the Texas Open national competition was historic, the biggest win for the Trojan Debate Squad in at least 30 years.

It was especially sweet for debate partners Julian Kuffour and Kevin Sun, who brought home the victory in their final tournament together after surmounting the challenges of Zoom debates these last two years.

The challenges of Zoom debates

A major challenge for the debate teams: Mid-debate strategy discussions were now off the table.

“Debate is a partner activity, and it’s very difficult to communicate with your partner when I’m in Kansas and he’s in California, and we’re debating on Zoom,” said Kuffour, a senior majoring in law, history and culture at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“We had to text a lot and learn how to communicate nonverbally and learn each other’s patterns.”

Sun noted other disadvantages to debating online. “There’s a period in the debate called cross-examination, and a lot of it has to do with assessing the atmosphere and the intangibles of a room,” he said. “We lost all of that on Zoom.”

But Kuffour and Sun, a junior computer science major at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, were seasoned competitors who spent the last three years debating everything from space collaboration to antitrust laws side by side. They were able to adjust and weren’t afraid to put in extra hours to prepare.

A fitting final debate

After a year perfecting every argument both for and against monopolies, the USC team’s potential fate became more and more apparent as the Texas Open progressed.

The USC team debated in 22 hours of elimination rounds the weekend before the final debate. Nearly three dozen teams were winnowed down to USC and Michigan, the standing No. 1 team. When the debate concluded, everyone filed into the hallway to allow the judges to deliberate. Kuffour and Sun said they felt good but cautious — about 60-40.

“When they announced it was 2 to 1 for USC, it was crazy. There’s a YouTube video of me and Julian celebrating,” Sun recalled. “I’ve never been so happy in my life, honestly.”

According to Sean Kennedy, debate director and a faculty member at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, it’s the biggest USC win since 1990, and though unverifiable due to spotty records, it is possibly the biggest Trojan victory since the 1970s.

It was the also the culmination of three years as partners, and Kuffour’s final debate as a Trojan. “It was a relief to win,” Kuffour said.

“I’m still pretty speechless,” he admitted. “There are no words to describe the importance of the win for my career, for Kevin’s career and for the team.”