Debate Team Moves Forward Amidst Disagreements About Supervision and Policy
This article was written by Shelly Le, Rachel Alexander and Karah Kemmerly. Emily Lin-Jones and Blair Hanley Frank contributed additional reporting.
This article is the third in a three-part series about Whitman’s debate team. Part one examines the debate team’s culture, including accusations made about pervasive sexism and excessive drinking. Part two focuses on the Title IX investigation conducted in the spring of 2012 and reactions to it.
An editors’ note accompanying this series can be found here.
Following last spring’s Title IX investigation, the debate team made a number of changes in response to concerns regarding team culture. One aspect of team culture addressed was the relationship between students and assistant coaches.
Assistant coaches are almost always recent graduates, often just a year removed from being Whitman students. Despite their closeness in age to members of the team, they are hired as members of Whitman’s instructional staff and are expected to conform to the same codes of conduct as other staff members.
Former debaters Kate Kight ’13, Ethan Robertson ’13, and Nicole Seibert* all said that during their time on the team, assistant coaches would regularly drink and party with team members. Although Director of Forensics Jim Hanson maintains that he does not tolerate this type of behavior, the team attends anywhere from 22 to 25 conferences per year, of which he personally attends 14 to 16. At other conferences, team members are entirely supervised by assistant coaches.
Kight acknowledged that the team’s culture may have changed during the three years since she left, and said the growing numbers of women and people of color on the team were a good sign of movement in the right direction. Still, she said Hanson was largely unaware of the problematic aspects of debate culture during her time on the team. While she generally felt he was supportive, she also didn’t feel that she could come forward with complaints about the culture of the team without being ostracized by other team members.
“I don’t think he ever saw the impact that the culture had on us,” she said.
Kight responded to debaters who have said that Hanson shouldn’t be held responsible for the problematic behavior of other students and assistant coaches.
“That’s fine until someone like me gets hurt and isn’t able to come forward … [The team] makes it really hard to come forward. They make it really hard for people to feel safe. That’s not the kind of school Whitman is,” she said.
Ultimately, she said Hanson is responsible for the overall atmosphere on the team, including the conduct of assistant coaches.
Seibert agreed, noting that an assistant coach was at the party she attended as a prospective student, and was drinking and smoking marijuana with students. She felt that Hanson should have been aware that the team was taking high school students to a party and considered that they would be put in a vulnerable position by not knowing their way around campus.
“That’s a huge, huge oversight and indicative of serious misjudgment,” she said.
Guidelines for coaches
In recent years, Hanson has coordinated with the administration to make various changes to the contract that assistant coaches are required to sign upon being hired. This year’s staff of assistant coaches was required to sign an updated version of the contract in January 2013, which is embedded below. Among various guidelines, the contract forbids coaches from partying or drinking with students.
Hanson said he works directly with coaches throughout the year to provide guidance and training so that they will meet the college’s expectations for them.
“Once selected, I work with the college to ensure that coaches understand the school’s policies regarding staff,” he wrote in an email. “I lead by example, and I ensure that assistant coaches are aware of my personal expectations about how we work with and interact with team members, and I’ve done that for 21 years.”
President George Bridges felt the expectations about coaches not partying with students are reasonable, despite the fact that many assistant coaches were members of the debate team just months before they were hired as staff.
“I believe it’s totally realistic, and I believe that the assistant coaches are employees and staff of Whitman College and have to be held to the same high standards and expectations as other employees.”
He also said these responsibilities were clearly communicated to assistant coaches.
Rising sophomore Meritt Salathe, a member of the policy team, said the administration fails to see the benefits of social relationships between assistant coaches and team members. She said that coaches often help new Whitman debaters connect with other members of the national debate circuit.
“I think that it’s difficult when looking at debate from an outside perspective to figure out what a good relationship between students and assistant coaches is. Coaches have just graduated, so they’re still involved with the community. It makes for a better team community if debaters interact and hang out with the coaches. They can introduce you to people from other teams, and it makes an inclusive environment,” she said.
Debater Jean Erickson* also emphasized that because assistant coaches are often alumni of the debate team, many friendships between coaches and students developed when coaches were students themselves. She feels that the administration has unrealistic hopes for assistant coaches.
“I’ve been very close with several of the assistant coaches, and I think they’re an important part of building team dynamics. They’re not supposed to hang out with us, which is stupid. They do, though, and they’re an important part of building the team up,” she said.
Sean Mulloy, a rising senior policy debater who has been on the team for three years, pointed out that many faculty are able to drink with students who are 21 and over, yet assistant coaches are expressly prohibited from doing the same, which he sees as a double standard.
“They have to remember that we are adults and the coaches are adults,” he said.
Rising senior Ben Menzies, another policy debater who has been on the team for three years, also noted that rules for behavior regarding drinking are defined differently for assistant debate coaches than for most other faculty or staff on campus.
“At some level, I feel that attempts to regulate the lives of adults of age are not only pointless, but ethically dubious, especially when this level of scrutiny is not applied to any other position on campus … The way in which this standard seems to be applied to debate coaches, specifically, seems to me to be an exploitation of the fact that they don’t have a way to appeal any administrative decisions—they don’t have tenure,” he said.
Administrative relations with debate
In addition to expressing concerns about the administration’s treatment of assistant coaches, some debaters have been unhappy with the overall manner in which the administration handled their investigation into the team and displeased with some of the effects of these investigations.
Mulloy said Hanson implemented a number of new rules for the team during the past year in response to administrative concerns following the Title IX investigation. While he was happy to see problematic aspects of debate culture being addressed, Mulloy felt some of these rules were either overreaching or unnecessary, including one that prohibited the team from discussing sex at debate events. Mulloy also said that while some aspects of debate culture are problematic, the team has been excessively scrutinized compared to other campus programs such as varsity athletics.
“I think there’s been a higher level of scrutiny on the debate team than on other programs at the college,” he said.
Alumna Miranda Morton ‘13 said she fully understands any concerns the administration may have had in the past and believes action to change these concerns may have been necessary. However, she was unhappy overall with the solutions to these problems.
“Any of the investigations and preliminary sessions that have happened because of different problems of the debate team I [wholeheartedly] think were appropriate and positive. If there is turmoil on the team, I think it’s the team’s job and the administration’s job to try and find a way to fix that,” she said. “That being said, I don’t think the administration has handled trying to solve any of the problems of the team in an effective manner, or in a student-focused manner.”
Mulloy understood administrative concerns about debate culture, but emphasized the improvements made by the team. He said the culture revolves less around drinking and partying than it did when he started, and the current policy team is welcoming of new members.
“We don’t pressure our freshmen to do anything. We welcome them fully as team members,” he said.
Rising senior Paige Joki also noted that the team has become a lot closer and more inclusive in the past two years, in part because of Hanson’s efforts to make debate a safe space to talk about all issues. Hanson started a discussion on diversity and inclusivity in the debate community at the Whitman Swing Tournament in February 2013.
“[The discussion] really challenged me to think of the way our community operates, and to try to make improvements to those areas, to make sure other debaters of all backgrounds feel that they’re respected and appreciated in the community,” said Joki.
According to Joki, Hanson’s commitment towards issues of race, gender and sexuality has made the Whitman debate team overall more inclusive towards individuals of all backgrounds.
“Jim is one of the champions of inclusivity; he instills an ethic of acceptance in each one of his debaters and his students. In his classes, race, gender, sexuality are always at the forefront; we always consider social location … I can’t imagine someone more dedicated to understanding and enforcing these things,” Joki said.
Other debaters have also expressed frustrations with the fact that the administration seems to be focusing on past events and not on current debate culture.
“The administration needs to separate events of the past from the current conditions of the team. If there were problems in the past—especially legal problems in the past—those are not indicative of the climate and conditions of the debate team now,” said Morton. “Because it seems that the administration has very little knowledge of what’s going on with the team now, everything seems to relay back to old problems, which gets the debate team in cycles of blame.”
Morton reiterated that Hanson has been a leading proponent of the administration’s requests for changes to the debate team.
“Jim is an amazing liaison between the administration and the students. He was constantly working to implement the administration’s changes, but he faced challenges from his students who didn’t understand them. But I think he did a really excellent job of managing that,” she said.
Although Associate Dean of Students Clare Carson would not comment on the specifics of the Title IX investigation, she saw having a new full-time director as an opportunity to make the team more inclusive, noting that a full-time position would allow the coach to devote more time to addressing concerns.
In seeking a new director, Bridges hopes to find someone who can foster an inclusive environment.
“We also seek a director who will cultivate an environment in which students learn and develop through successful training and competition,” he wrote in an email. “As with all of our programs and teams, an essential ingredient of this environment is an atmosphere of respect that promotes the well-being and dignity of all students regardless of their gender, background and orientation, and that affords all participants equal opportunities to compete at the highest levels, advance intellectually and develop interpersonally.”
The debate team has met with the administration twice since Hanson’s resignation, and these discussions have largely been focused on creating an advisory group consisting of alumni, current debaters and a faculty member to provide input for a new director.
Menzies said he was happy with these plans for an advisory group, especially because he felt that current team members have more knowledge about debate and about the qualities of a good director than most administrators do. However, he is frustrated that choosing to involve the team more directly in the search for a new director was ever a question at all.
“While the conversations have been productive, as preliminary discussions can be, I’m very disappointed that we’ve seemed to have conversations on whether or not the team should be involved,” he said.
Morton would like to see a director who is a Ph.D. candidate at least, who has experience with debate and the administrative tools to book and plan trips for 20 or more people. She also stressed it would be a good idea either to hire an interim director or to set aside a year-long training period so that Hanson can work with the new director.
“When Jim took over as director of forensics from Bob Withycombe over 20 years ago, there was an entire year of transition, and that’s really important to maintaining the success of the debate team,” Morton said.
Debaters also hope more two-way conversation will occur between team members and the administration about hiring decisions and future administrative choices regarding the team.
“I feel that we’ve made some positive steps in reestablishing our relationship with the administration, but I still think that we have a long way to go in order to ensure that that relationship continues,” said Joki. “Like maintaining open lines of communication and ensuring that we have a staff next year.”
Menzies said in the past there have been conversations between the administration and individuals of the team or the team as a whole, but he feels the administration has not kept team members in the loop about changes to the team as a result of these conversations.
“In these conversations we were promised transparency. These conversations were followed by weeks, months of silence from the administration,” he said.
Some debaters hope communication between the administration and the team in future years can be focused more on positive reinforcement. Morton said most team interaction with the administration in the past year has been negative. Next year, she hopes there can be an acknowledgement of each other’s feelings and concerns.
“The administration has, if anything, in the students’ views, placed the students as the place to undue blame on the coaches and the students and make it harder for us to continue to be competitive and continue to learn and grow,” she said.
Hanson said he was heartened to see support from students and alumni and appreciated the call for administrative transparency with regard to the investigation.
“I personally believe in transparency and ensuring that our school and its programs follow ethical, professional and humane policies toward all faculty, staff and students. I’ve worked hard to create that ethos at Whitman, and I believe it is part of who we are as a community.”
*Due to debate’s tight-knit community and possible repercussions that could arise from being named, several sources requested to remain anonymous. Pseudonyms have been given to these sources.
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