Institutions of higher learning all have mission statements and make public proclamations that espouse the value of developing critical thinking skills, creating engaged citizens, and building rigorous educational programming. Policy debate programs help universities meet these requirements like nothing else can. When done well full-service policy debate programs are more academically rigorous than any class students will take, and when combined with an extensive public debate program have the potential to engage the entire student body.
Seven years ago, JMU Debate received a fairly large budget increase. It was in my 5th year as Director of Debate and interestingly it had only a slight connection to our competitive success as a team. We had grown very rapidly and it was due in large part to my inability to say no and belief that debate should be open to everyone (if you aren’t willing to embrace the big tent model of the debate that allows people at all levels to be involved you should probably stop reading right now). We were bursting at the seams, and our budget simply did not allow for me to recruit any more debaters. We had 12 fairly committed students returning and I did not know how we could continue to recruit students in good faith that we could not afford to travel.
Honestly, this is not a problem that would have led to our budget increase. The university would have been fine at the budget level we were at with us having a half dozen successful teams at the junior varsity and open levels. The thing they really cared about were our public debate and outreach efforts. The simple truth is that for really good public debates you need to have experienced students and if more and more of our debaters were sticking around it meant that we would have no new debaters to train for public debates in the future. I made the argument that if you want to have a robust public debate program in three years we need to recruit and train those students as first year students and that work could not be done without a budget increase.
In my budget proposal I outlined all of our public debate and outreach efforts, the incredible students that we were recruiting and value that having debate students in class added to class discussions (complete with testimonials from professors from almost every college on campus). I explained that we had grown to our capacity and if the university wanted us to continue to do our good work they would have support us financially. I even threatened to dial back our efforts and only focus on competition if our budget stayed the same (I’m not sure what I would have done if they had called my bluff).
I probably need to mention at this point that our competitive success mattered as well. If we had just had a vibrant public debate program then I doubt we would have been able to recruit the same students and, more importantly, our triumphs let me make the argument that we had superior debaters who had honed their skills against the best teams in the country. And we had the tournament success and national rankings to prove it.
So, we were doing it all on a shoestring budget and the university was touting our successes as an example of what the engagement university should strive for. Only after we had done all of that work did we receive a budget that allowed us to compete at the level we were capable of (even though it was still well below the national average). Imagine if a football team had to show they could be competitive (plus do a ton of community service) in order to get their budget approved.
So, the real question is why doesn’t every university in the country have a debate team, and why don’t those who do have them support them at the level that they support less academic endeavors? There are 774 college football teams in the United States, but there are significantly fewer college debate programs. Whose fault is that? Is it the universities that fail to support college debate programs or is it the fault of the debate programs themselves? The truth is both parties are to blame.
The Failure in University Priorities
Many universities’ priorities are way out of whack. This is not to say that the university cannot focus on athletics or great facilities or top-notch graduate programs. What I am saying is that when those things are done while undergraduate education is ignored then a university has to take a long hard look at what they place a value on.
A debate budget is tiny when it comes to the general operating budget of a university. Yet debate budgets are often on the chopping block when departments or universities are looking for savings. This demonstrates that many universities are simply not willing to match their stated goals with their spending priorities. I was extremely lucky that at JMU our debate program was safe and, after pushing for a budget increase for years, well supported.
That didn’t happen by accident though. It required a sustained and consistent effort to raise the profile of the debate program and ensure that individuals throughout the university understood the importance of supporting the debate program.
The Failure of University Debate Programs
There are very few college debate programs that are truly safe from budgetary issues. You can count on two hands the debate programs that are so well supported and so well-funded that they are guaranteed to exist long into the future. Additionally, there are only a small contingent of debate programs that can exist on the basis of competitive success alone. Most debate programs need to find ways to connect with broader university goals in order to justify their existence. Here is my advice based on what worked for us at JMU.
First, connect the work your debate team does to the university mission and vision statements. This is low hanging fruit. An analysis of over 120 university mission statements from universities (thanks to Marie Eszenyi and Oliver Brass for their assistance with the coding) that have had policy debate programs in the past ten years indicate an emphasis on the following attributes that align directly with most debate programs:
· Autonomy, Choice or Democratic Problem-Solving
· Experiential Learning or Applied Research
· Critical Thinking, Debate, Advocacy or Communication
· Diversity of People or Ideas
· Responsible Civic Engagement
· Holistic Personal Development
· Academic Rigor
Every single university mission statement that was included contained at least three of these characteristics with some containing as many as nine. Interestingly, the results did not vary based on the type of institution. Community Colleges, regional public universities, small private universities and big national research universities all placed the emphasis on creating deep learning opportunities for undergraduate students.
This analysis proves that universities already value what we are doing. The fact that they don’t realize how central debate is to their mission and vision is our fault. For too long we hid out on the weekends afraid that someone would find out that we are speaking fast or talking about topics that seem to the untrained observer as unrelated to the resolution. Thanks to Youtube that cat is out of the bag. Everyone can see what we are doing and it’s time for us to embrace it. It’s time for us to say that speaking quickly increases the research burden and the academic rigor of what we do and that just as performance studies or critical race studies or any other disruptive practices exist on our campus then also exist in debate (and give students often great access than they receive on their own campuses).
As we defend debate we should do so in a way that confronts university administrators’ perceptions of debate by tying it directly to the official statements that universities make about what they value.
At the same time, we need to add to our repertoire. We can no longer just compete and hope that is enough. We need to reach out and form partnerships across campus and into our local communities. We need to do big public debates so that others on campus can no longer say “I didn’t know we had a debate team.” Finding ways to showcase our students’ ability to research and capacity to teach our communities how to engage with difficult or complex ideas is the best path to making sure that debate survives for future generations. It is hard work, but if we find ways to embrace what our universities think matter (especially when we are already doing much of it) then we might just leave something for the next generation of debaters.
- Dr. Mike Davis is the Executive Advisor to President Jonathan Alger of James Madison University. Before his he was the Director of Debate of James Madison University's debate team, and coached at the University of Georgia and the University of Rochester. He debated for Syracuse University, and is the namesake of the Michael K. Davis Award given annually by CEDA East.