The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Elimination of coach puts debate program in jeopardy

By Matea Wasend

The Macalester debate team is small now-only six members, one of them currently studying abroad-but this year’s team might seem huge by next fall. If the administration follows through with its recently announced plan to cut the debate coach’s position and subsequently switch the type of debate in which the team competes, not one of the current members plans to return next year. The administration plans to eliminate the position of Assistant Director of Forensics, halving the coaching staff of the forensics department. Director of Forensics Richard Lesicko, who currently primarily coaches mock trial, will split his time with Lincoln-Douglas and Parliamentary Debate next year

“The decision was made because of low participation,” Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre wrote in an e-mail. “Given the many needs at Mac and the economic times, I could not in good reason keep the assistant coach position.”

Both the mock trial and debate teams participate in off-campus competitions throughout the semester, many of which are out-of-state. Lesicko explained that because the regional National Debate Tournament (NDT) circuit, the style of policy debate in which the team currently participates, has largely dried up in recent years, the closest tournaments are in Iowa, Illinois and even Texas.

Because Lesicko will be required to travel with both teams, he says that NDT is not a feasible option for next year. Instead, the team will compete in both Lincoln Douglas (LD) and Parliamentary, two types of debate that Lesicko says offer both closer tournaments and “more accessibility” to people with limited experience.

“We have been diminished to a staffing level that hasn’t been seen since the Eisenhower administration,” Lesicko said. “I have had to make decisions about what we can’t do with resource constraints. NDT debate is not something that fits into next year’s resources.”

Macalester issued a press release on the college Web site about the elimination of the coach’s position March 11 titled “Shift in Macalester’s Forensics Program to Encourage Greater Participation.” It cites low participation and high costs as the reason for the cut, and described Lesicko as “confident that this shift [to LD and Parliamentary debate] will increase student participation.”

Debater Michael Freedman ’11, however, says that if Lesicko goes through with the plan to move away from policy debate, not a single one of the current debaters plans to return next year.

“Everyone on the team now came to debate policy,” Freedman said. “We don’t have any intention of debating if they scrap policy.”

NDT policy debate pits teams of two debaters against each other, who argue two sides of a resolution that typically proposes changes in U.S. government policy. LD, which is sometimes referred to as “values debate” because of its emphasis on ethics, is an individual form of debate. Parliamentary debate, which is also individual, presents debaters with topics on the day of the competition, and gives them a limited amount of time to formulate arguments.

Freedman said the idea that switching to LD and Parliamentary will attract more debaters will not work, explaining that they are simply not as competitive or intensive as NDT and will not entice serious debaters.

“It’s like saying if the baseball team can’t get enough people we’ll switch to cricket,” Freedman said. “Nobody goes to college to debate LD.”

Mike Baxter-Kauf ’02, the coach whose position will be cut next year, agreed. He speculated that many of the prospective students who had expressed interest in the debate team for next year would probably not participate on the team or might even opt to attend another school once they learn that policy debate is being cut.

Hamre, however, said that many of the students who originally cite policy debate as their reason for coming to Macalester end up not participating anyway.

“I can only surmise that the energy and time is too much given the rigorous academic expectations and other opportunities provided,” Hamre said. “I anticipate the switch in format-which will require less time away from campus-will increase participation.”

Baxter-Kauf, who has held a three-quarters-time position since 2006, handles the administrative side of the team as well as helping students with researching, writing and developing arguments. During the weeks before upcoming tournaments, he said he sometimes works with students for more than three hours every night-time he speculated Lesicko will not be able to give with a commitment to two teams.

Freedman expressed frustration that the administration made the decision to cut Baxter-Kauf’s job without first asking the team to try to raise additional money or amp up recruitment efforts. He said that if the team was given time, they could probably muster funds to start an endowment for the program, perhaps by appealing to the hundreds of alumni who have participated in debate over the years and would likely be unwilling to see policy debate scrapped.

When the administration announced the staff cut, Baxter-Kauf’s wife, alumna and former debate captain Katie Baxter-Kauf ’02, started a Facebook group called “Save Macalester Policy Debate” encouraging people to petition the administration to retract the decision. Within 12 hours, the group had 650 members. As of press time it had 1,132.

The school’s press release, which Freedman described as “a lot of damage control for such a minor personnel change,” cites a period in the 1990s when Macalester did not do policy debate as a historical precedent for this switch. Lesicko agreed, explaining that in 1987 Macalester switched to Cross-Examination (CX) debate when two of the major debate organizations merged.

“The shift worked out very well,” Lesicko said. “I want to emphasize: the college is not killing debate!”

Freedman contested the accuracy of the timeline that Lesicko and the administration described.

“Mac uses the example of switching from NDT to CX,” Freedman said. “However, back then these were essentially the same activity-it was like switching from American League baseball to National League baseball. Switching [from policy debate] now is like switching from American League baseball to a baseball-themed pinball machine.”

Freedman and the other members of the team plan to submit a formal proposal to the administration after they return from Berkeley, Calif., where they are debating this weekend.

Hamre says at this point, she does not expect the decision to be reversed, although she will “take their proposal and rationale seriously.”

Although Lesicko sympathized with the college’s financial plight, he expressed regret about the resulting need to move away from policy debate and “pull the plug on something I spent my entire life building.” Lesicko debated at Macalester in the early 70s and has coached college debate since 1975.

“I was on the first Macalester team to receive a first-round bid to nationals,” Lesicko said. “Every team that has reached elimination rounds has a colleague of mine or someone I coached.”

“At some point, we will have the resources to return to the intense and valuable debate on the NDT circuit,” Lesicko added.

Macalester’s press release can be viewed at:

The “Save Macalester Policy Debate” Facebook group is online at:

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