Is this the end for Macalester’s near-century-old policy-debate program?

Old Main, Macalester College
Creative Commons/Photo by William Wesen
Team policy debate: almost as old as Old Main.

In 1986 and 1987, two students from Macalester College won the Cross-Examination Debate Association national tournament two years running — a feat that had never been repeated until this past weekend. Since before World War I, debaters from the school have been toppling larger, better-funded rivals.

But next year, the liberal arts college in St. Paul with 99 years of debating tradition will eliminate the crown jewel of its speech program: team policy debate.

Part of this is to save money, although administrators say dwindling participation is also to blame. The policy squad’s numbers dipped to four active members (a fifth, expected to return next year, is spending a semester abroad).

The decision has students, parents, alumni and others in the Minnesota debate community flummoxed and scrambling to persuade the administration to reverse its decision. At issue isn’t just Macalester’s near-century old legacy of debate and education, they say. It’s the health of an activity that provides essential opportunities for hundreds of other Twin Cities high school and college students.

Why policy debate matters
Doing battle with brain and wit is as old as language itself, but not all arguments are created equal. Intercollegiate policy debate in America is a form of this ancient activity unlike any other, and backers say there’s just no substitute.

“Policy debate is the most intellectually and academically rewarding extra-scholastic activity there is,” says Mike Baxter-Kauf, a 2002 Macalester graduate who has coached the team for the past three years.

He’s far from alone is this assessment. Competitive speech and debate (which is known collectively as “forensics,” with no relation to the crime-scene science that bears the same name) consists of several different events. All teach different lessons. None, say most veterans of the activity, teaches as much as well or as fast as policy debate.

Why is this form of competitive speech valued above the others? Focused on what can be proven with facts, college policy debate eschews simple rhetorical prowess in favor of high-level thinking, voluminous research and comprehensive analysis. Policy debate requires more of its participants than alternative events like parliamentary-style debate — more work, more thought, more of your life. But, say its adherents, it gives back immeasurable rewards.

“Policy debate is the only type of speech activity that forces you to always be thinking, and thinking at a rapid rate,” says Adam Freedman, a sophomore who came to Macalester from the Chicago-area debate powerhouse New Trier High School. “Compared to other forms of debate, it forces you to think more critically, more quickly, and rely more on hard evidence.”

In a team policy debate — often referred to as NDT or CEDA-style debate, after the two national policy-debate organizations who merged in 1996 — one team of two students argues in favor of a resolution while another team of two students argues against. It becomes a rapid-fire game of argumentative strategy in which each argument becomes a tactical weapon.

Critical thinking skills
“The other events I tried didn’t provide the same level of argumentation and weren’t as challenging,” says Cory Copeland, a junior policy debater at Macalester who believes the loss of the program will cost him “a unique educational opportunity … I think [policy debate] may have done more to develop my critical thinking skills than any other activity or class I have participated in.”

Whatever benefit debaters like Copeland and Freedman might have gleaned from the activity pleases Mac administrators. They just wish, especially in these economic times, that there were more students getting those benefits.

Last month, college dean Laurie Hamre decided to cut funding for the assistant coach job — Mike Baxter-Kauf’s job, the three-fourths-time position responsible for maintaining the policy team.

Laurie Hamre
Laurie Hamre

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Hamre. She stresses that it wasn’t based in any way on Baxter-Kauf’s performance or the performance of the Mac debaters. Nevertheless, unless something unforeseen happens, this spells the end of team policy debate at Macalester.

A storied history
Since his freshman year as a Mac undergrad, Dick Lesicko has been helping to build Macalester’s speech and debate team. Now 56, the director of Mac’s forensics program has led his team through some of the highest points during the program’s storied history.

From 1973 through 1987, Macalester qualified a team for the National Debate Tournament every year. After jumping ship to NDT’s rival organization, the Cross-Examination Debate Association, a Macalester team won the first two CEDA national tournaments — again, the only team in history to win two in a row.

It’s impressive for any school to stand toe-to-toe with powerhouses like Harvard. For a tiny institution like 1,900-student Mac, it’s more remarkable still.

Macalester competes against teams like 2009 National Debate Tournament champion Kansas and perennial power Michigan State. Kansas’ student pool is more than 10 times greater, and MSU’s is more than 20 times larger. Nationwide among small liberal arts colleges, only Dartmouth, Whitman and Gonzaga compete on the same level that Macalester has.

This is a point of pride for alums, many of whom remain in the activity.

“It breaks my heart that they might not have a team,” says Becky Opsata, who debated at Macalester from 1988-1992 and now runs a college debate program of her own, at Diablo Valley Community College in California.

Strictly speaking, debate will still exist at Macalester even after the coaching position is eliminated. Students can do parliamentary style debate, mock trial, or even a relatively new form of policy called National Forensic Association Lincoln-Douglas, named after the famous Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas one-on-one debates.

Any form of debating, Lesicko says, is educational.

“As long as you’re traveling to tournaments, you can access critical thinking and cognitive skills,” he says. In the next breath, though, he acknowledges that the new form of debate isn’t a substitute for NDT/CEDA style policy, the crown jewel of academic debating.

“It doesn’t have the prestige, or the depth of field, or the quality of judging associated with NDT,” Lesicko says. Fewer schools compete in these Lincoln-Douglas tournaments, the quality of competition is lower, and students neither do as much research nor are forced to learn teamwork skills.

On the other hand, Lesicko says, the solo format is more accessible to average students and more realistic given budgetary and time constraints. This could engage students who might not make the commitment to the more rigorous policy style.

“We’ve killed off the honors course,” says Lesicko, “to beef up the basic course.”

Administration cites too few students
Like any honors course, policy debate is more exclusive. Fewer students sign up. And this is the crux of the administration’s position: too few students are doing policy to justify the expense of an assistant coach.

“Nowhere on this campus do we have a three-quarter-time staff person responsible for just four students,” Hamre says.

Critics of the decision cite a robust crop of recruits anxious to do policy debate at Macalester next year. They also say that if the program is to grow, eliminating coaching isn’t a good start.

Gregg Fishbein
Gregg Fishbein

Gregg Fishbein, a partner at the Minneapolis law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen, coached debate at The Blake School in Minneapolis for 15 years. Students interested in debating in college, he says, look for the option to debate at the highest level.

“I had one student go to Macalester that would not have gone there if they did not have a policy debate program,” he says. “They are going to offer other forms of debate. In my view, that is the equivalent of having a high school all-star baseball player showing up at Macalester and being told that the baseball program has been cut, but he shouldn’t worry because the school has a really good intramural Wiffle ball program available to him instead.”

Another worry in the debate community is that cutting coaching leads to a vicious cycle. Too few students? Can’t justify a coach. Can’t justify a coach? Extremely difficult to crack that “too few students” problem.

“We were expecting next year to have five debaters back, and hopefully a good number of [recruits] get in for next fall,” says coach Baxter-Kauf. “It’s a young team, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.” But six or seven of this year’s prospective Macalester recruits say debate is a major factor — in some cases a deal-breaking factor — in their decision about where to attend school. Many of Mac’s current debaters, like junior Jonathan Chen, say they “probably would not have enrolled” if the school didn’t have a policy program.

A ripple effect
Then there is the broader impact of Mac’s policy team in the community.

Amy Cram Helwich is executive director of the Minnesota Urban Debate League, a nonprofit bringing debate education to underfunded schools in the Twin Cities. She says the Macalester policy team plays a major role in helping her organization provide opportunity to hundreds of primarily low-income and minority students.

“We’ve just had this great connection with Macalester,” she says. “Part of the reason that the UDL has grown so much is that we have this wonderful college debate community that can come in and act as coaches, judges, and volunteers. We couldn’t find enough people to coach our kids or judge at our tournaments without a college policy [debate] community.”

Minnesota’s Urban Debate League is a major educational success story, and one she contends wouldn’t be possible without policy debate. The program serves 350 students annually, in 15 partner schools within St. Paul and Minneapolis. Of those, 75 percent are low-income and 70 percent are students of color.

Their graduation rate and college attendance rate? Last year, 100 percent. Every single senior graduated on time, and all went on to college. This is all the more stunning given that some estimates place North’s overall graduation rates as low as 40 percent.

“We’re talking about a lot of first-generation college students here,” says Cram Helwich. “I don’t think you can get those same successes with a different kind of debate.”

The research backs her up. A new study last fall examining high-school debaters in Chicago showed that when students were introduced to policy debate, it had a huge impact on literacy rates, graduation rates, grade-point average and standardized test results — all benchmarks for success in college.

“Even though [Macalester’s program is] not robust in size, their existence makes an impact on our program,” Cram Helwich says. “It becomes one big loop, where having a thriving policy debate community means we have access to college students who are mentors, judges, volunteers and coaches for our high school league. Then I have kids who, when we grow this high-school program, want to do policy debate in college. The two feed each other.”

What next?
Opsata, the Mac alum who directs a college debate program of her own, is sympathetic to the school’s desire to broaden access to debate.

“It doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario [between expanding debate and doing policy],” she says. “From an administrative perspective, you can do both, and you should do both. But if you want to increase participation, there needs to be a full-time coach working on increasing participation. There’s no way you can increase participation without somebody who is an advocate on campus.”

A “Save Macalester Debate” group on Facebook has more than 1,000 members so far. A letter-writing campaign to Hamre and school president Brian Rosenberg has generated 20 or so responses, Hamre says, from alumni, parents of prospective students and members of Minnesota’s broader debate community.

The budget crisis is affecting schools nationwide, but policy debate is managing to survive and even grow in places. Later this month, Mac debaters will compete at the CEDA national tournament in Berkeley, Calif. There are 210 teams registered for the event, making it the biggest field in 10 years at least.

As for Lesicko — who traced Macalester’s first debate to April 7, 1911 — he’s taking the long view.

“I’m looking forward to the occasion when we can field an assistant and bring back NDT,” Lesicko says. “Maybe the 100th anniversary will be an occasion for that.”

Jeff Shaw is a freelance writer and former web editor of City Pages. He was a debater at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.

Update: An earlier version of this story said that Macalester was the only team to have won the CEDA National tournament twice in a row. This was true until Sunday, when 2009 champions Nick Watts & R.J. Giglio from the University of Oklahoma defended their title by winning 2010’s tournament in Berkeley, Calif.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bob Jordan on 03/30/2010 - 09:28 am.

    Paul Benson & Molly McGinnis won the first two CEDA National Tournaments in 1986 & 1987 for Macalaster.

    That feat was actually duplicated this past weekend when Nick Watts & R.J. Giglio from the University of Oklahoma won the CEDA National Tournament for the second consecutive year.

  2. Submitted by Lucy Dalglish on 03/30/2010 - 01:10 pm.

    As a high school sophomore in the mid-1970s, I attended “debate camp” at Macalester. A young Dick Lesicko was one of the camp “counselors.” I learned critical thinking and public speaking skills in competitive debate that I use every day in my job. For more than a decade after college graduation I lived in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. In my mind, debate is the one program that distinguishing Macalester from every other college in the Upper Midwest. I can’t believe the school would eliminate it. (And make no mistake, eliminating a coach guts the program.)

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/30/2010 - 03:16 pm.

    I would hope Macalester chooses to delay this decision for a year or two to give the program time to grow.

    There must be some way to utilize their 3/4 time coach with his undeniably impressive qualifications.

  4. Submitted by Reid McLean on 03/30/2010 - 04:13 pm.

    Is this an editorial, or a news article? To me it reads like the former, and should be labeled as such.

  5. Submitted by Gary Clements on 03/30/2010 - 11:03 pm.

    I’m not understanding what a 3/4 time debate coach is. Is that a 3/4 of a full time employee? What kind of salary does a 3/4 time debate coach earn? This missing information makes it very difficult to weigh the decision in the light of Macalester’s entire debate team expenditures, and its overall budget. This article needed more research.

  6. Submitted by John Hakes on 04/07/2010 - 11:16 am.

    The overall issue that rigorous & classic forms of communication instruction struggle to hold a place in academia, while the masses lay out a few hundred dollars per year to keep pace with the latest in superficially used technological gadgetry—- is unsettling to say the least.

  7. Submitted by Donnacha De Grant on 05/16/2010 - 01:43 am.

    A very similar development has been occurring at Middlesex University UK where the Philosophy Department is scheduled for closure. Thery also have a Facebook page for Save Middlesex Philosophy. A student occupation of the departments facility was ended by legal injunction this weekend amidst uproar from the international community of scholars.

    The whole argument about numbers is of course spurious when these cannot be dissociated from ever increasing fees, the latter phenomenon being fueled by nothing other than the wish of the administrators to be paid like bankers.

    The whole argument about numbers has therefore circular character which ultimately amounts to a plea to rid the administration of the nuisance of students; rather akin to the corporate strippers whose fantasy is a world without workers.

    Surely the people of Minneapolis will be wise enough to see that it is time to throw the moneylenders out of the temple?

Leave a Reply