Has college debate lost its civil tongue?

Incident involving Pitt team sets off a national discussion


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CLARION, Pa. -- The campus bell tower chimes seven times on a Friday evening, marking an hour when many college students are sliding into the weekend.

But inside a locked classroom at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, things are heating up. Ross Garrett, a pencil-thin competitor in glasses and a necktie, rocks back and forth while unleashing a torrent of words so furiously that his face reddens and he periodically gasps for air.

His argument, accelerating to 300 words a minute, is not the rant of some lunatic you'd avoid if you met on the street. In fact, he and a busload of his teammates from Liberty University have traveled more than eight hours from Lynchburg, Va., lugging plastic tubs of arcane policy papers on farm subsidies, hoping to outtalk their counterparts from 10 other schools.

Welcome to the world of collegiate debate, an academic sport that sells no tickets, attracts no crowds and has no ESPN contract.

It bears little resemblance to the debates of generations past in which men from privileged backgrounds called each other "my honorable opponent" and spoke slowly enough to be understood.

Debate today is more robust, free-wheeling and occasionally profane. But has it gone too far?

That question is reverberating in the debate community after an August YouTube video captured a profanity-packed shouting match between William Shanahan, Fort Hays (Kan.) State University's debate coach, and Shanara Reid-Brinkley, his counterpart at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Shanahan dropped his pants to expose his underwear, interrupting a post-debate round at the Cross Examination Debate Association's national tournament in Wichita, Kan., a "mooning" that led to his firing days later. Dr. Reid-Brinkley kept her job, but won't be coaching in debate tournaments this year.

New code of conduct

So this fall, as a new collegiate debate season gets underway, a community that loves a good argument is arguing over the very nature of debate. Officials at CEDA are drafting a code of conduct, even as camps within the debate community ponder whether the episode reflects a decline in civility.

"Just because an incident like that happens doesn't mean we're all a bunch of savages," said Stephanie Dillard, Mr. Garrett's teammate and girlfriend. "I think 99.9 percent of the debate community is real cordial, nice people."

As a debate scholarship student at Liberty, a religious school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Ms. Dillard, a wholesome 21-year-old, never swears. But she says some debaters on other teams make points by lobbing profanities.

"Some people swear like sailors," she said, adding that most will refrain if she asks.

Others say the fact that profanity is even allowed suggests standards have eroded. Some competitors in the 2008 CEDA national championship sprinkled profanities and graphic references to anatomy into a highly personalized performance debate.

"It's a big mess and few members of the debate community know how to fix it," said Fort Hays president Edward Hammond, who pulled his team from competition this year and fired Dr. Shanahan. "They don't know how to put the genie back into the bottle."

Some say judging debate by a few raucous moments is like defining collegiate basketball by former Indiana Univerisity coach Bobby Knight throwing a chair onto the court.

"If universities spent one tenth of what they spend on intercollegiate athletics on intercollegiate debate, the world would be a better place," said Tim O'Donnell, director of debate at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

Decades ago, debate was a mostly a white male campus activity in which competitors kept to wonkish policy ideas. A tournament judge might vote against a debater for not wearing a necktie, even if the person had the most gifted tongue.

Just as those wardrobe standards have loosened -- jeans and T-shirts can be seen among more formal attire -- so has the style of argument. Though most college debates still center on policy, a subset of debaters pushes the envelope by taking on thorny, even taboo, lines of argument.

Years back, a debate over public school standards would have focused on whether testing should emphasize math or science, said John Fritch, head of the communications department at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the National Debate Tournament. Today, that same debate might touch on whether the tests themselves, or the schools, are racist or sexist.

Or, whether debate rules themselves are racist.

"People have become more passionate," said Kaitlyn Haynal, 20, a James Madison junior and team member. "Debate has become an arena where people can discuss these sort of, maybe controversial and sometimes insulting, very personal questions."

Some debates even morph into counterculture protests. "Being anti-establishment is part of the argument. They are designed to be shocking," said Gordon Stables, first vice president of CEDA and director of debate at the University of Southern California. "That's not the norm."

The debaters themselves have become more diverse, making the sport a great equalizer in status-conscious academia. "In how many other competitions can a community college and Ivy League school compete against each other?" Dr. Stables asked.

Still, critics say those arguments skirt another more worrisome shift that has occurred.

"By and large our kids, and surprisingly [some] faculty ... have been socialized by television. Their norm for a healthy exchange is 'The Jerry Springer Show' or 'The Capital Gang.' The whole notion of whoever shouts loudest wins," said Michael J. Sheeran, president of Regis University, who congratulated Fort Hays' Dr. Hammond on his decision to pull the Fort Hays debate team from competition. "It seems to me that this is trying to make its way into university level debate."

Civil but unintelligible

There is nothing Jerry Springer-ish about the tournament, sanctioned by the American Debate Association, held inside Founders Hall, a majestic red brick building on Clarion's rural campus on a recent Friday.

The debate before zero spectators is at least as civil as the one 57 million people watched later that evening between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, but it is less intelligible. To those not accustomed to the pace of this supercharged subculture, the hum of rapid-fired words sounds like a foreign language.

"MRRRRRRRRRR ... subsidies ... MRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR ... visibility ... MRRRRRRRR ... agricultural support," Ms. Dillard says. She audibly gasps before lobbing another torrent of words that showers down on her opponents like a hailstorm.

Ms. Dillard and Mr. Garrett are all revved up for this second round, even though they and 29 teammates and 10 coaches were up until 2 a.m. the night before on a bus. By day, they read and underlined policy papers and by night, fell asleep on uncomfortable bus seats.

"All of us on the debate team have vehicular narcolepsy," says Ms. Dillard, whose team is scheduled to make road trips nearly every other weekend this fall to tournaments as far away as Texas.

Fortified with oatmeal bars and pretzels to keep her blood sugar up, Ms. Dillard hands Mr. Garrett policy papers scattered on the floor. They are in sync.

"No one else can stand us," Ms. Dillard says. "We are so Type A."

The two open the debate, arguing for nine minutes each that fishery subsidies should be eliminated. Their opponent, two women from James Madison University, present the negative arguments. Then the two sides have three minutes of question and answer and six minutes of rebuttal.

Farm subsidies, a chosen topic for collegiate debate this year, is not what most students argue about at off-campus bars. But Ms. Dillard, a communications major, and Mr. Garrett, a Biblical studies major, are steeped in the minutiae of the subject, thanks to 20 hours of prep work and four large plastic tubs of evidence cards. (A plastic tub of policy papers can cost $50 to check on a plane, so there's pressure to travel lighter when they set out on a plane to faraway tournaments.).

The James Madison team puts up a valiant fight, at one point calling an objection by Ms. Dillard and Mr. Garrett "whiny."

"It brings out some cattiness but it's all in good fun," said Tiffany Pryce, 22, a senior at James Madison.

The judge, a young man in a white ball cap and shorts, barely says a word, but he scribbles furiously on a sheet of paper during the hour and half debate before declaring Liberty the winner.

Ms. Dillard breathes a sigh of relief, but she knows the next day will be more grueling.

"I feel like I've burned just as many calories as Michael Phelps did," she said. "Talking that fast is not easy."

The next day, Ms. Dillard and Mr. Garrett win three of their four matches before advancing through the quarter and semifinal rounds on Sunday. They faced off against the University of Mary Washington in the finals.

Ms. Dillard and Mr. Garrett, who argue for the elimination of cotton subsidies, win, earning their first varsity victory, a big adrenaline rush. They received a plate and trophy.

There is even a small splurge -- they get to order a hot fudge sundae at Cracker Barrel. "Usually we get one entree," Mr. Garrett said. "But for our celebration, we got an entree and dessert."

They will board a bus, which rolls onto Liberty's campus at 3:45 a.m. Monday, hours before class.

The next weekend, the duo will try to repeat their win at a tournament in Richmond. But for a few days, Ms. Dillard will give her faculties and voice some badly needed down time. "My brain is on a thinking veto."


Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572. Bill Schackner can be reached at 412-263-1977.


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