Debate team budget woes

Shortly after Portland State’s internationally competitive debate team brought home its third consecutive victory at the 79th annual Mahaffey Memorial Debate Tournament, it faced a major setback when the Student Fee Committee released its 2010-11 budget for student groups.

Shortly after Portland State’s internationally competitive debate team brought home its third consecutive victory at the 79th annual Mahaffey Memorial Debate Tournament, it faced a major setback when the Student Fee Committee released its 2010-11 budget for student groups.

Noticeably absent from the group’s budget: $10,000 in traveling expenses requested to go compete in local and regional tournaments, as well as $14,000 in entry fees to participate in those tournaments.

Members of the debate team are frustrated, particularly because they have gained a significant amount of momentum over the past year. In 2009-10, the team won five out of eight tournaments, but the cap on travel will severely limit their ability to compete in the future.

“It’s hard to be an intercollegiate competitive team without the intercollegiate and competitive part,” said debate member Aaron Baker, who won first place with his partner Lindsay Bing at the Mahaffey Tournament. “It’s like telling the director of athletics that their team can’t go anywhere and compete.”

According to several members, travel is an integral part of the debate team. Chris Richter, the debate team’s coach, said not being able to travel and compete takes away much of the team’s drive to improve because members don’t have an opportunity to prove their abilities.

Kelly Welch, student coordinator and debate team member said, “All other benefits we provide to our members and to the school fundamentally collapse without the foundation of education and experience that competition affords us.”

However, the debate team is unique amongst other SFC-funded groups because of its competitive aspect. While it competes regularly in tournaments held at regional and out-of-state schools, the team has no foundation of support from an academic department or athletic division. The debate team relies solely on student fees for its funding. 

According to Richter, the debate team was housed under the Department of Communication when it first began in the 1960s, and therefore received its funding through that department. However, when Richter became involved with the team in 2005, it was an SFC funded group.

Though they acknowledge the financial benefits of being supported by an academic department, Hawthorne and others are concerned about the team’s autonomy.

“As a student group, the students make the decision on where we go to compete with the advice from our coach, how many teams are going to tournament, who gets to go,” Hawthorne said. “Under a department, we cannot make that decision to go to any tournament we want.”

According to Hawthorne, the Communication Department has not expressed any interest in supporting the debate team.

SFC Chair Johnnie Ozimkowski said PSU is different from other schools because it still pays for the debate team’s coach out of student fee money, rather than through a department.

“I’ve been talking with various administrators and departments to figure out what’s the best place for debate to live,” he said. “If we can figure out a way for them to pay for their coach, whether through the communication department or the center for academic excellence, then they can have more money [from the SFC] for travel.”

According to Ozimkowski, the SFC set a cap of $10,000 a year for student groups to pay for a coach, but decided to allow the debate team almost $25,000 for its coach. In addition, Ozimkowski said the team was allowed to use some of its coach’s salary to pay for travel expenses.

“They could move $15,000 from their coach’s salary to travel and pay their coach $10,000,” Ozimkowski said.

Baker said paying $10,000 for their coach would be unfair, given the amount of work he contributes to the team.

Welch said the team has appealed the budget and is currently waiting for the Student Senate to make a recommendation to the SFC.

In a letter to the SFC, Colm Flynn, former chair of the World Debating Council, said the cut to travel will severely set back the progress of debating at PSU for years to come and result in a loss to the international debate community.

Debate team members also participate in several public service events, such as the recently hosted public debates on Measures 66 and 67. Members also volunteer at several local high school tournaments and recruit high school students who are interested in debate.

Patrick Johnson, Westview High School’s speech and debate teacher, said debate team members volunteer their time at his school’s debate tournament.

“They did it out of the goodness of their heart and love for debate, they were not getting paid,” said Patrick Johnson, Westview High School’s speech and debate teacher. “Without their help, the high school students would not have a debate tournament.”

Ozimkowski said he is currently working on a transitional funding model for the debate team, including setting up a foundation account where alumni can make donations to the debate team.

Hawthorne said, “We have talked to Johnnie a little bit about transitioning to some other funding model but we don’t have any real idea about what this would look like.”

Welch said she is a bit wary of a transition process because they don’t know which option would work best, and that a foundation account would not be the primary source of funding.

“We would like to look into transitioning, since we’ve frequently felt like a square peg in a round hole,” Welch said. “But if there are no better options, we hope we wouldn’t be forced to transition just because we’re an inconvenience here.”

In the meantime, the group is holding practice to get ready for the upcoming National Tournament, to be held at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Welch said the SFC gave them travel funding for next year’s Nationals, but did not give them funds to register. As of now, the team is unsure whether it can attend the National Tournament in 2011.