Jan. 23, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 9

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    Model UN: Taste for world politics, competition -- and revenge

    When the University of Chicago Model United Nations Team competes at Harvard next month, against more than 130 institutions and 2,000 students, its members will combine their impressive individual skills in the service of a common goal.

    "Revenge," said George Varghese, a fourth-year student in the College and president of one of the most successful Model UN teams in the nation. "It's that simple."

    According to Varghese, the Harvard conference is the largest and most prestigious on the North American circuit. While Chicago was awarded Best Delegation in seven of the last eight competitions at Harvard -- an achievement unprecedented in Model United Nations competition -- last year's loss of the Best Delegation designation was perhaps a result of the team playing its part too well.

    "As a team we had chosen to represent Sudan, a pariah nation in the real world," Varghese said. "To represent that country accurately, you have to be obnoxious, aggressive and disruptive. And we did that -- we basically disrupted every committee. We were victims of our own skills."

    Varghese doesn't think that will happen this year, since Chicago's winning performances at recent conferences are helping Model UN organizers accept that the best teams don't always have to represent the "good guys."

    "It's fun to be Libya or North Korea, and it's boring to be the United States," Varghese said. "It's more challenging to pick some of the toughest countries to represent. It's important to remember that, at a global level, not everyone is of a Western mind-set. Some countries do have, by Western standards, horrible records on human rights and women's rights, for example, and a realistic Model UN debate must reflect that accurately."

    Taste for competition

    The national Model United Nations program provides college students with an opportunity to play the role of delegates from countries in the United Nations, as well as members of other political organizations. The student delegations form committees to discuss a variety of international issues and, through debate and negotiation, try to pass resolutions on the issues.

    In competition, schools choose one or more countries to represent, with team members assigned to advocate specific positions within the context of committee discussions. Prizes are awarded to individuals for excellence in committee advocacy, and the institution with the best overall record is then named Best Delegation.

    The Chicago chapter, begun 10 years ago, has been one of the most competitive teams on the Model United Nations circuit since its inception, winning team and individual awards virtually non-stop at top conferences at Harvard, Pennsylvania and Georgetown. This year, MUN continued its winning tradition by taking first-place awards at conferences at Yale in October and the University of Pennsylvania in November. "The Penn conference was a great event for us," said Varghese. "We beat Georgetown and West Point -- the traditional winners at that conference. It was great."

    Most Chicago MUN participants concentrate in the social sciences, particularly political science, but MUN students also have studied physics, philosophy, Near Eastern languages and biochemistry.

    "Most MUN members were into Model UN at the high school level," said Varghese. "It's a big thing at the high school level because it's an event that requires a lot of different skills -- debate combined with current events combined with working with people.

    "In fact, Model UN is so big that I often get e-mail from prospective College students who want to go here just because of our team's reputation."

    'Research-intensive' pursuit

    The University's MUN team attends three competitions each year -- the Yale, Penn and Harvard conferences.

    "About three weeks before the event, the organizing committee sends out two topics per committee per conference," said Varghese. "We have mock program simulations, and then pick the team members who will compete at that event. Not everyone gets to go, because funds are limited. But the quality of these mock programs just keeps getting better and better, as we seem to be attracting more capable students every year."

    With more than 60 members, MUN is one of the University's largest Registered Student Organizations. Travel is supported by the Coalition of Academic Teams, an umbrella organization that includes the Chess, College Bowl, Debate and Speech teams. The team budget is $20,000, and each member that goes contributes $85 per conference.

    Once selected, the team members for that event research various topics related to the team's country, as well as specific topics to be discussed in committee at the event.

    "It's very research-intensive," said Varghese. "You have to know a country's stance on a whole range of what at first seems like unrelated material -- gross national products, birth rates, major industries, immigration rates, etc. -- because once you are at a conference, you can't go to the library to look something up. Just like in the real UN, a country's delegate has to know everything and be able to make quick decisions based on that information."

    The conferences are usually four days long, running from late Thursday night until noon on Sunday. "We are literally in session four days straight. It's common to see delegates talking and cutting deals way after the actual session has ended for the night."

    The team is primed for the Harvard competition, Varghese said. Who will Chicago represent?

    "Russia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma," said Varghese, barely able to conceal the glee in his voice.

    "Myanmar is run by a military dictator, its gross national product is based on the country's widespread opium trade and it has a horrible human rights record," he said with a smile.

    "The team can't wait to compete."

    -- Jeff Makos -- George Varghese