Director of Forensics Jim Hanson Steps Down
After coaching debate for 20 years, Director of Forensics Jim Hanson announced Monday that he would be stepping down in order to take a full-time position as Chair of the Department of Rhetoric. Debate team members and alumni have expressed shock, disappointment and frustration with the decision, which many feel will seriously damage the debate program.
Junior Sean Mulloy, a current member of the debate team, said no real reason has been given for the sudden change, prompting many team members to question the reasons behind it.
“Many members of the team feel very frustrated and disillusioned with this sudden announcement,” said Mulloy. “We have no idea [why he's stepping down]. The administration has told us that for privacy reasons, they cannot comment. I think it’s only fair that some sort of justification be given to us.”
Hanson declined to give a reason for his departure from debate when contacted by The Pioneer, and referred back to his email to the team, which states, “Given the recent creation of a new Department of Rhetoric Studies and my role as chair in building this program from the ground up, I will be stepping aside from my debate responsibilities in order to devote my full time and attention to this new effort.” He would neither confirm nor deny that his decision to step down was entirely voluntary and had no further comment on that topic.
“I’m hoping that the program will move forward and they’ll hire a good director and the program will maintain its quality,” said Hanson.
President George Bridges was unable to comment specifically on the reasons for the change due to federal laws and college policies which keep personnel issues confidential.
Associate Dean of Students Clare Carson also declined to give specific details about the reasons for the change.
“There’s a lot of speculation and false rumors going around. I think they should respect what Jim said and go with that,” she said.
Carson said that the new director of forensics position would be full-time, allowing the college to focus more resources on debate. Hanson currently splits a full-time position between the debate team and the Department of Rhetoric.
Still, debaters are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of clarity and transparency in the change. A “Support Jim Hanson” Facebook group created by alumni had 249 members as of press time, and several alumni have contacted the college, as well as The Pioneer, to express their support for Hanson and the debate program, and their disappointment with the sudden change of coach. A group of 28 debate alumni also wrote an open letter on Wednesday to the Board of Trustees and members of the administration expressing their disappointment for the way the decision has been handled. A full PDF of the letter can be viewed at the bottom of this article.
Alumnus Kristofer Peterson ’97, who was on the debate team for four years, said he will be withdrawing $5000 of planned gifts to the college in response to the decision, as well as cutting off contact with the alumni association if the matter is not resolved.
“I think it is not a voluntary decision because knowing Jim as I do, he would have insisted on a transition period,” said Peterson. Peterson served as a judge for one of the team’s tournaments earlier this spring and said he spoke to Hanson, who was making plans for next season at the time.
Peterson and Mulloy were both disappointed by the lack of student involvement or consultation in the decision prior to Monday’s announcement. The last switch in debate coach, from Bob Withycombe to Hanson, included a transition year from 1993-94 before Hanson took over. Peterson felt that the current time frame left the college almost no chance of finding a coach as accomplished in both parliamentary and policy debate.
“The pool for his successor is very limited. I don’t think the college is going to be able to find someone of his caliber,” said Peterson.
Whitman’s parliamentary team has been ranked first in the country by the National Parliamentary Debate Association for four years in a row. In part due to this success, the team enjoys generous alumni support, including three endowments and funds specifically dedicated to the team. Debate alumni expressed concern in their letter that mismanagement of the team could cause this funding to dry up.
Vice President for Development and College Relations John Bogley said he was concerned about alumni support, but viewed their concerns as a chance to move forward.
“The opportunity is in trying to engage them in moving forward in a way that shows the college’s continued support for the success of the debate team,” he said.
As a result of Hanson’s change of position, the Whitman National Debate Institute, a summer program for high school students which is taught by Whitman debaters, will not be held this summer. Carson said the college is working to find alternate employment for students who were slated to teach over the summer.
Bridges, Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland, Carson and Provost and Dean of Faculty Tim Kaufman-Osborn are planning to meet with debate students on Wednesday, May 8 to address their concerns and discuss moving forward for the team.
The Pioneer will publish more information as it becomes available.
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