The Emporia State University (ESU) debate team was recently forced to end its historic 148-year run. We invited Chris Loghry, ESU’s Director of Debate, and a former student debater, to share his reaction to the news, reflect on how reluctantly joining the debate team in high school changed the course of his life, and ruminate on the academic and professional value that will be lost to students as the award-winning program comes to an end.
It’s over. On Sept. 14, the Kansas Board of Regents approved Emporia State University (ESU) President Ken Hush’s plan for a “workforce management framework.” The very next day, the university notified 32 of my colleagues and me, that we would be dismissed — some of us immediately. My final day is May 16, 2023.
At first the fate of our award-winning and legendary ESU debate team was unclear. With its 148-year-old history, I never imagined that its present or future would be in jeopardy. After all, the university is only 11 years older than the debate team! However, nearly two weeks later, on Sept. 27 the university notified me that the debate team was being divested. I was shocked and devastated.
After serving as the Assistant Director of Debate from 2012 to 2014, ESU hired me as the Director of Debate in 2016 — fresh out of graduate school. My time at the university has enriched my life more than I will ever be able to repay, but now my time there is ending.
Where I Entered
My road into the world of debating, which led me to ESU, started in Cheyenne, Wyo. My frustrated mother — tired of the trouble I had been getting into after school, made it clear that I was to participate in an extracurricular activity. She even chose one for me, forcing me to join the Cheyenne East High School debate and forensics team. I was immediately smitten.
I was attracted to the sophisticated research and arguments my peers were deploying. Growing up in Wyoming, I was enamored with the possibility of getting to travel to faraway, exotic (to me) locations like Albuquerque, N.M. or Berkeley, Calif., for competitions. I became fascinated with the intricacies of education policy, privacy protections, and arms control — just a few of the many topics that we debated. I longed for competition weekends where I would get to test the critical thinking skills I had begun to hone or flex my research muscle to demonstrate how I had found the best evidence to support my arguments.
At the start of high school, I did not intend to continue my education after graduation. However, after three years of competing on the debate team, I could not imagine discontinuing my participation in this activity and a college education became a foregone conclusion.
Having spent most of my life in Wyoming, I set my sights on attending a university where I could debate in a larger city than the one in which I had grown up. I only applied to two universities, the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) and the University of Wyoming — with Wyoming as a backup. I was accepted to UMKC and found a spot on the debate team.
At UMKC, I quickly discovered that, while I loved Kansas City, it was too much city for my small-town sensibilities, and I began looking for a change. ESU’s then-director of debate asked if I would be interested in debating on his team. In the Fall of 2003, I became a scholarship-earning member of the ESU debate squad.
After a successful competition year from 2003 to 2004, including qualifying for the National Debate Tournament, I was excited to build on my success in the 2004-2005 season.
Unfortunately, my place in the tradition of ESU debate was seemingly cut short. I loved debate more than I loved going to class. I decided I was not cut out for college, so I left ESU and headed back home to Wyoming. However, I was given a second chance and allowed to return to school in the Fall of 2008. This time, it was as a 24-year-old “returning student.” Besides a short break earning a master’s degree, I have been at ESU ever since.
More than Words
Debate began on the ESU campus (then Kansas State Normal School) a mere 11 years after the founding of the school and has been a fixture ever since. ESU is one of, if not the only, active teachers’ colleges with a constituent active debate program. That is, until May 2023 when the paltry operating costs of running the debate team will be reinvested elsewhere on campus.
Unlike collegiate sports, intercollegiate debate does not have divisions cordoning larger schools off from smaller ones. As a debater and later as a coach, I cherished the opportunity to engage in intellectual sparring with students across the entire higher education spectrum, from junior colleges to Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Dartmouth, or Cornell.
Many universities have multiple coaches and/or graduate assistants to help guide their teams. For the last 20 years at least, ESU has operated with just one or two coaches and no graduate assistants. Despite limited coaching resources and a limited budget, up to now, ESU debate has demonstrated a history of success amidst the changing winds of university administrations and budget realignments.
Debate is not an unstructured activity where students simply choose a position and then spend time arguing about it. Instead, policy debate requires rigorous research on a single proposition of policy change over the course of an entire academic year. This process of both research and application gives students direct experience in critical thinking, teamwork, leadership, public speaking, and more. Indeed, according to Jackie Poapst, the president of the Cross Examination Debate Association, a single tournament weekend is akin to taking a public speaking course more than 10 times. On top of that, studies have found that the average debater learns as much on each year’s topic as a master’s student would. These skills are obviously valuable, making students more competitive job candidates, leaders, communicators, or advocates.
ESU debate has been a beacon on the prairie of Kansas, offering access to a debate education for students from wide walks of life — underrepresented students, returning or working-class students, rural students, or students for whom college always seemed out of reach. I know I would not hold a single degree, let alone two, without the skills and opportunities ESU debate offered me. I fear that the cessation of ESU’s debate team will deprive future students of these opportunities.
For the ESU administration’s part, they have begun announcing reinvestments in programs they deem worthy of continuing, but exactly how the minuscule monetary investment in the debate team will be reinvested remains to be seen.
I know for many of my students and me, losing the debate program means finding the next thing to invest our passion in or finding another institution that values debate as much as we do. The future also means change, and what I was given as a student — a second chance.