Montana State University

Debate model helps MSU students excel in knowledge about Arab world

April 20, 2011 -- MSU News Service

Before they returned to Bozeman from Washington, D.C. recently, members of MSU's upstart Model Arab League team met with Montana Senator Max Baucus. In just a couple of years interest in the team, which requires great amounts of time for research as well as discipline to debate according to the rules of Parliamentary Procedure, has mushroomed under the tutelage of MSU political science instructor Thomas Goltz, back row, far right. Photo courtesy of Thomas Goltz.   High-Res Available

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Eritrea, the small country on the Horn of Africa is as far from Bozeman as is possible on the planet, yet several Montana State University students have became award-winning experts on Eritrea and other members of the Arab League in recent national and regional contests.

The seven current students and two recent graduates are members of MSU's Model Arab League team. In recent weeks the team was recognized for skill in debate against other universities in the National Committee of United States Arab Relations competition in Washington, D.C.

"It was the NCAA of university debate societies, and MSU left its indelible mark." said Thomas Goltz, MSU political science instructor who ignited interest in the competition when he became coach two years ago. He said MSU "triumphed" at the competition. "We have already been invited to all the big regional conferences everywhere from South Carolina to Boston."

Goltz said the Model Arab League is based on the real, 22-member Arab League, set up in 1945 with headquarters in Cairo, Egypt.

Goltz explains that the MAL resembles other diplomatic simulations such as the Model United Nations, and demands that students accurately represent their countries' interests in accordance with a modified version of Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure in structured debate. MSU was a last-minute entry in the national competition. Thanks to support from the MSU President's and Provost's Offices, the MSU team made the trip and was assigned Eritrea just a week before competition. Other competitors included Houston, Miami, Northwestern, West Point, and even a team from the American University in Cairo.

Goltz said there was some providence that the small, out-gunned delegation from MSU represented the small, out-gunned Arab League observer state of Eritrea.

"I came to realize that although the big schools were proficient with their parliamentary procedures, our MSU crew was head and shoulders above the others when it came to an intimate knowledge of history and current events in the Arab League," said Goltz, who added that he was very proud of the intelligence, ingenuity and spunk with which the MSU team represented Eritrea.

One of those team members was Daniel Brooks, a senior from Three Forks majoring in international relations.

"I signed up for the Model Arab League due to my utter fascination with the Arab world in light of three Marine Corps deployments to Iraq," said Brooks, who other members call "Sargeant" because of his rank in the military. He was also interested because he had taken Goltz's Black Sea Politics class last year, modeled after MAL but from the perspective of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation.

Another member of the team is Laura Villegas, a senior from Cota, Columbia and a former first-team Big Sky conference tennis player. She said members of the MSU team prepared themselves for the debate with a "tsunami of news-stories and political analysis of the region." She observed that the difference between the larger schools and MSU was that they had a better understanding of rules of debate and strategy, but MSU put emphasis on content and accuracy.

"So, obviously we did not make very many friends during committee. But that's what you get for being loyal to your principles and consistent with your history," Villegas said.

Goltz said the MSU team "was easily the match of the best and capable of making seemingly minute points of correction that stunned even veteran chairs, and the hook and jab of the Montana team hung in every room."

Derrick Gratwohl, who graduated last year and helped coach the MSU team, received an honorable mention award for his work on the Environmental Affairs Committee. The award was presented by Saudi Prince Abulaziz bin Talat bin Abdulaziz al Saud. The MSU team celebrated at an Eritrean restaurant in D.C., where a Gratwohl-autographed copy of the award still hangs.

Goltz said the national competition well-prepared MSU for a regional MAL competition held last week in Missoula. There, MSU students won six best delegate prizes and three runners-up.

Next, Goltz said he plans to work for the reinvigoration of a Rocky Mountain MAL chapter by bringing in more schools to the annual regional MAL competition, either to be based in Bozeman or possibly Salt Lake City or Denver.

"The MAL is too vital as a study-tool to be restricted to a mere 'rivalry' between the MSU-Cats and the UM-Griz," said Goltz. "We need to expand it to all comers."

Goltz also hopes to expand a new debate society based on the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) that includes member countries such as Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Albania into a regional academic competition. Last year, MSU hosted a Black Sea Conference. To see a video of last year's conference, go to

Thomas Goltz (406) 994-4141,