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Author Topic: Macalester Policy Debate: The End of an Era  (Read 2690 times)
katebaxterkauf
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« on: March 09, 2010, 01:39:04 PM »

2010 is the Macalester Debating Society's one-hundredth birthday. For 100 years, the Macalester debating society has produced national champions and prominent world leaders, and has raised the level of civil discourse in and around the campus. And on the eve of that momentous occasion, the College is poised to destroy that program.

I will start out with a disclaimer: I am not objective on this subject. I went to Macalester because of debate, literally: I applied early decision only to Macalester after I came to visit and found out about the team. I wrote my personal essay about running a debate tournament, was the captain of the Mac debate team, met my husband in Old Main during the national qualifying tournament held annually at Macalester, and have informally helped out and cheered on the team since I finished. My husband is currently the policy debate coach at Macalester. I coached debate elsewhere for awhile, then came back to work with a local debate non-profit that Macalester supports, and have spent the last few years advocating to hundreds of high school kids about the value of a Macalester education, with a heavy emphasis on debating while there. Not every student who debated and ended up at Mac ended up on the team, but every one told me the same thing: that Macalester's commitment to excellence, and specifically their commitment to maintaining a policy debate team, was one of the things that drew them to Macalester.

This past week, I found out that Macalester intends to eliminate the position directly responsible for the policy debate team's administration. To say that I am upset by this is a massive understatement: I feel personally betrayed, like the hundreds of hours I've spent defending and promoting Macalester are not only irrelevant but were in support of an institution that I no longer trust is making decisions in any way tied to the educational needs of its students. I'll explain.

First, I think we should be absolutely clear: the decision to eliminate the assistant director position at Macalester sounds the death knell for policy debate at Macalester. This is true for a variety of reasons, even if in the short term Macalester does not eliminate the team's travel budget. First, the current Director of Forensics, Dick Lesicko, who was the director when I debated, and whom I respect and admire greatly, has said that he intends to stop traveling policy teams and attempt to establish an NFA-LD program, which is a one-person format that does not emphasize research, does not have any participants on campus, and that Macalester has never done. He has sent this information to current debate participants, who have indicated they have no interest in this activity, and which appears to be completely irrelevant to the direction of the debate program. The program's current participants, which includes a student who will now not be able to participate during his senior year at Macalester, were not consulted and did not find out until after this decision had been made.

Also, right now, there are two people who work with the forensics program: the Director, who for the past few years has traveled primarily with the Mock Trial team, and the assistant, who has dealt with the policy team. Both sets of student groups travel between 8 and 13 weekends a year. It is not physically possible - or particularly reasonable working conditions - for one person to do both sets of travel. The teams travel on overlapping weekends, and many years, the important tournaments happen at the same time. Also, both teams host a tournament (which not only brings excellent competition to Macalester but also provides our teams a cost-free way to get experience) on the same weekend - which could not happen in a world where one person is left alone to run the program. Additionally, Dick has historically hired a policy coach because policy debate is more specialized and requires year-to-year maintenance of evidence and specialty knowledge. That current coach spends countless hours a week discussing strategy, finding evidence, and doing skills work with the team, the degree to which is just not possible if consolidated in one person.

Why does this matter? Because policy debate is one of the most profoundly educational opportunities that exists. Policy debate encourages students to do research, think critically, and work in teams to advocate for complicated policy and philosophical propositions. The students who participate in debate at Macalester spend hours doing extra research and thinking critically about the world around them, a skill that is critical to the mission espoused by the college.

None of this should be seen at all as a slight on the Mock Trial team - I had tons of friends who participated, and it's a great activity. The Mac team is continually good, and many of the folks who were on the team could testify to its greatness. The point is that the two parts of forensics offered at Macalester should not be in competition with each other, since they complement. There are skills you learn in Mock Trial that aren't available in debate, and vice versa. But Mock Trial is not debate, and if the forensics coach who specializes in policy debate is eliminated, there is no debate at Macalester.

The debate team is fully aware of the economic conditions the college faces. The team had no problem cutting its travel budget last year, and has offered to use its hundredth anniversary as an opportunity to fundraise the money necessary for the coach salary for the team. When the college was presented with this idea, we were told that this option was not available because it would undermine the school's ability to fundraise for the capital campaign, and most notably the renovation of Janet Wallace. This is interesting, because the debate team has been housed in the theater building for at least the past 12 years. We've been in the building, on the 2nd floor, despite the fact that it's not handicap accessible. We've carried tubs of evidence up and down the stairs, and worked in the old building, and have been more than happy to have our own space. But now, the irony that the team may be sacrificed to renovate the very building that it is housed in is astounding. What purpose is there in having state-of-the-art buildings if the educational opportunities contained within them are eliminated?

Macalester has continually reassured students and parents that despite its financial difficulties, it would not eliminate academic programs. The elimination of the policy debate team proves that this statement is factually untrue. The sacrifice of actual programs and intellectual activities at the expense of expensive buildings is unconscionable. Current and admitted students should know that no program is safe, not even established and historically lauded ones like debate.

The debate team is doing what it can to restore funding and convince the College that our program is worth saving. To that end, we've talked to alumni, made pleas to the administration, and have begun to contact folks. If you have suggestions, we're all ears.

Thanks to everyone who's supported Macalester debate over the years.

--
There's a group on FB: http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=255972024977&ref=nf

The right point person at Mac is Laurie Hamre, Dean of Students: hamre@macalester.edu
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