WU Debate Union's future unclear without coach or clear communication from University
Updated: Oct 11
The Willamette Debate Union has a long and storied history, but it may be at risk of decline due to the team’s lack of a coach. For several decades, the Debate Union was run by professor Robert Trapp, a widely respected expert of British Parliamentary Debate. After Trapp retired at the end of the Spring 2020 semester, the program was taken over by Director Natalie Lyell (‘20), a recent Willamette alumni and Debate Union veteran. While the program had been previously run by a full-time tenured faculty member, Lyell’s contract hired her for 20 hours a week. Lyell was always intended to hold this position for one year, ending in May 2021; however, a replacement has still not been hired. Currently, Lyell is still the director of the Debate Union, while the debate class is being taught by co-captains Katrina Miller (‘23) and Kristell Mares De Juan (‘23). Lyell said that the University has known for the past three years that a new director of the Debate Union would need to be hired. Both Lyell and Miller pointed to the choice to seek a part-time director as the primary cause of the failure to hire a new coach: “The position that the University has advertised isn’t a desirable one for most people that would be qualified,” said Miller.
Even if a part-time coach is hired, those involved in the Debate Union say it needs a full-time faculty member in order for the program to be run successfully. Lyell said that a part-time coach is “absolutely not” enough for the program. “This position was previously held by someone that was doing it as… essentially a full time commitment as the director of the program… any other school that I have talked to has just been shocked that it is a part-time position that only I am holding.” Lyell said that she normally worked a minimum of 30 hours a week and many more hours on tournament weekends. Miller agreed that more time and resources are needed to run the program than the 20 hours a week that the University is currently willing to offer.
Amidst these challenges, the Debate Union is still operating. “It’s an unfair situation and it sucks, but given the circumstances and the resources at our disposal we are still leading class, we are still organizing debates, people show up for class and enjoy it and participate, everyone’s really engaged,” said Miller. While Lyell said that the Debate Union cannot be viable as a student run organization in the long term, she said the captains were doing a good job and that students have really stepped up to keep the program moving. However, some members of the Debate Union have critiques of how the student leaders are doing. Gus Gunter (‘23), a new member of the Debate Union, said: “As a first time student, and as someone who is personally close with a number of returners, the confidence for student leaders is at an all time low and is something that I have not before seen in a Willamette program.” Gunter said that class on Tuesday, Sept. 28 was cancelled and that according to Miller, Ruth Feingold, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is likely going to sit in on the debate class on Thursday Sept. 30.
The team feels that this effort is not being matched by the University in its communications with the team. “I think the biggest problem that debaters across the board, especially returners have had is that we don’t feel as though admin communicates with us,” said Cole Garber (‘23), a three year member of the Debate Union. Over the summer, students discovered that Debate was not listed as a class on SAGE, Willamette’s class registration portal, as well as not having a Willamette Instructional Support Environment (WISE) site or a listed professor. According to Garber, debate was put on SAGE after complaints from students. Students did not know what was happening with the class until the first day, when Dean Feingold came to the class without notice to explain the situation to the students. Lyell described the lack of communication as “hugely unfair to the team,” saying: “students who were involved did not receive a single email about what was happening with their program. They had no idea if there was a coach, they had no idea what was going on, and that burden fell solely on the administration because my contract had ended, I wasn’t being paid, I wasn’t even being communicated with.” Garber added: “There’s some people who are angrier than others. I’m trying very hard to be understanding, but it’s really difficult sometimes.”
Feingold did not respond to a request for an interview.
Some students are concerned for the future viability of the program. If the program were to be ended, it would jeopardize the debate scholarships that many of these students receive. According to the University’s website, incoming first-year students can apply for scholarships of up to $4,000 a year for participating in debate. According to Garber, the administration has promised that these scholarships are safe: “And I’m really grateful that admin is continuing that scholarship program because we were sincerely worried about how that would look like since we don’t have a traditional class setting, but from the sound of things, Dean Ruth Feingold said that our scholarship issue is gonna turn out okay,”
Those involved in the program had good things to say about their past experiences in debate. “It’s a great place to talk and debate about current issues going on,” said Hannah Purdy (‘24), a two year member of the Debate Union. Garber said that debate gives students an opportunity to learn many useful skills that they would not learn in many other places, such as working on argumentation and logic, public speaking, and understanding different perspectives. In addition, Garber said that he has found debate helpful with his problems with anxiety: “It’s personally helped me in dealing with my anxieties by just giving me a more comfortable way of combating it, in more extreme ways of public speaking and seven minute speeches with fifteen minutes of prep, it’s kind of like very impromptu, improvised.”
Despite the ongoing challenges with the program, Miller still encourages students interested in debate to join; Miller said that the team has open practices twice a week and that there are many resources available to help students learn more about debate. “We love having new people and they would be totally welcome to join,” said Miller.