[eDebate] Reconnecting debate to the academy-the case of UMKC

Joe Miller gobodog
Mon Apr 17 18:31:09 CDT 2006

I should probably not respond to this before actually talking to the
folks involved, but I'm just so shaken up I have to express.

I first became acquainted with Linda and the UMKC program five years
ago when I began researching the Urban Debate Leagues. By and by I
became involved with Debate Kansas City and have become friends with
Linda and many on the UMKC squad. For the last year we've been having
a lot of conversations about how to get more students from UDL schools
onto their squad and into the university. I'm thrilled that one of
DKC's finest debaters, Desmond Mason, will be joining the squad next
year, and that former DKC star Joe Harrity is enjoying a spot on the
squad as well. All of us want to see this happen more and more often.

So I'm obviously shocked to hear about this on eDebate. Just two weeks
ago I was talking with Matt Vega about the possibility of working with
KCKCC and JCCC to transition our students into UMKC and other
four-year schools. So this new turn comes as quite a blow.

I don't think it's going to happen, though. I think UMKC debate will
not only survive but it will grow and thrive, for a couple of reasons.
And I'd like to share these publically because I think they might add
value to this discussion you're having here about how the community's

1. Linda Collier laid out an incredible infrastructure that local
leaders need to understand and appreciate. In addition to everything
Malcolm described you also have Debate Kansas City, which is a very
well-run, wonderful organization. Linda got that going, fought all the
early fights, and now it appears to be here for the long haul. Also,
UMKC's debaters have been vital to the program's success by serving as
assistant coaches, judges, camp lab leaders, mentors and just plain
cool college kids for our kids to be friends with.

I think local leaders can be convinced that the indespensible asset of
Debate Kansas City needs UMKC debate in order to survive. But more
than that, I think they can be made to see that this symbiotic
relationship is a full package of educational empowerment in our
community. I think our leaders can be persuaded that DKC and UMKC
debate form a sort of pipeline from junior high through undergrad
school to bring our community's young people into the contemporary

Here's where UMKC can and is borrowing a bit from the Louisville
model. With DKC, UMKC debate can be easily sold as a diversity
initiative and/or a part of UMKC's "full community" mission/ethos.
Like Louisville, ours is an urban or metro institution. A big part of
its reason for being is to strengthen the local economy with
well-trained workers and to build new generations of leaders. It is
obviously very successful at doing this -- many of our elected
officials graduated from UMKC as did many of our business leaders.
Debate is a natural part of that equation, and I think people will buy
into it.

2. The UMKC debate squad has really stepped up in the last couple of
years to make the model I described above possible. And I think this
is really germaine to the larger discussion you all are having here.
UMKC has made their squad a place that's comfortable for people from
diverse backgrounds. They've done this in lots and lots of specific
ways, but these all seem to stem from a basic underlying philosophy in
which diversity is a top priority. They have put an inclusive squad
culture above winning. And, lo and behold, they've continued to have
competitive success.

I think this is key for the larger debate community to pay attention
to. For all the debate on here about argumentation styles and topic
selection, the stuff that really fosters diversity, in my opinion
(which with a buck is worth a cup of coffee), is the day-to-day
relationships, the continual commitment to creating a friendly and
welcoming environment. In my book that's where the real success of
Louisville lies. I love their arguments and their speeches and the
ideas they put out there. But what really impresses me about their
squad is the way it feels like a family. It's like a safe place in a
hostile world. It's got the personality of a successful UDL program
like Kansas City Central's. It's more than just a team, it's a reason
for being.

UMKC has been creating that same sort of culture on it's squad, based
on what I've seen. Their personality is different, obviously, but
that's a good thing.

3. UMKC debate has begun to broaden its notion of what debate squad
is. They've been requiring community service of its members, for
instance. This is just getting started, but I think the more UMKC
debate can become visible as a source of -- oh, I don't know --
democratic energy -- the more it'll build political capital. It's here
that I think Gordon Mitchell's essay about agency and Alan
Coverstone's most recent essay can provide some good ideas for how to
make debate programs more vital to their communities and therefore
bigger sacred cows come budget time.

Like, I think it would be great if colleges could bring back a little
of the true "traditional debate" -- in which schools went head-tohead,
drew huge crowds and made front-page news. Obviously that's not going
to happen now the way it did in the late 19th century, but I do think
some creativity could lead to ways to make academic debate become
something that's indespensible to the larger society.

UMKC seems to get this.

See, I'm coming to this as an outsider, basically. I'm a dude who
never debated before I "discovered" it as a journalist, and now I
think it's something that's really worth supporting -- indeed,
fighting for -- in our society. It seems to me that I'm the sort of
person who needs to be sold on it -- soemone who stands for everything
you all stand for on principle, but who never really stopped to think
about how important what you all do is. (awkward phrasing, sorry.)

So how can UMKC regain its political capital?

Well, basically the way Linda did it before. The difference this time,
I think, is that the appeal has to be framed around diversity
initiative, "full community" empowerment and symbiosis between DKC and
UMKC. Also, I think it'll be necessary to broaden the supporting
powerbase. In addition to building connections and alliances in the
university itself, I think it'll be important to enlist support from
powerful people in KC with a keen interest in UMKC and educational
empowerment (and there are many). Yes, some newspaper articles will
help. But those folks don't act based on what they read with their
coffee. In KC, you've got to have breakfast with people, tell them
what you're doing and get them to back you and get other people to
back you.

I think it's doable, especially with the attention I anticipate Debate
Kansas City will receive this fall.

I hope this was helpful and not preachy.

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