As Longtime Coach Steps Down, Debate Culture Under Scrutiny
May 20, 2013
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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 first in a three-part series about Whitman’s debate team. Part two focuses on the Title IX investigation conducted in the spring of 2012 and reactions to it. Part three discusses the transition following Director of Forensics Jim Hanson stepping down, and what having a new, full-time coach will mean for the team.
An editors’ note accompanying this series can be found here.
In the last week of April of this year, Director of Forensics Jim Hanson announced he would be stepping down from his role coaching Whitman’s debate team in order to take a position as chair of the newly created rhetoric studies department. Hanson has been coaching debate at Whitman for two decades and has been widely credited with getting the team to its position of national prominence today.
In the weeks following his announcement of resignation, debate alumni, students and faculty have raised questions about Hanson’s decision and the administration’s handling of the change, given that a new coach had not yet been selected for Whitman’s nationally ranked team when Hanson stepped down. Many alumni and debaters have suggested that Hanson’s change of position was not a voluntary choice, a charge which he has declined to comment on.
While the college is legally prohibited from discussing the reasons why Hanson stepped down due to laws about employee confidentiality, Hanson’s decision came in the wake of greater administrative focus on the debate team. A three-week investigation by The Pioneer has confirmed that the team was the focus of a Title IX investigation during the spring of 2012, and that other administrative concerns were raised about sexual harassment and treatment of women on the team, as well as about the supervision of assistant debate coaches, most of whom are recently graduated students.
The college’s Title IX investigation into the team has been the focus of discussions about Hanson stepping down, but the full story involves earlier concerns raised about team culture, including the treatment of women on the team.
Sexism in team culture
Alumna Kate Kight ’13, who was a debater her first year at Whitman, said she experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate comments and pressure to drink from fellow debaters and assistant coaches during her year on debate, all of which contributed to her decision to leave the team.
During her year on the team, Kight was told by a teammate, “You’ll never make it on debate because you’re a woman.”
“It was intended to be funny, but I felt [some] truth behind it,” she said.
Over spring break, the team had a tournament which she wasn’t invited to attend because she had been less involved than some other debaters. Still, she was home for spring break and the team was staying near her hometown, so she went shopping with a friend on the team who attended the tournament. The friend told her that in the hotel room the night before, team members had been discussing her body, commenting on the size of her breasts and discussing the outfits she wore and whether they were helping her get more points with judges.
“That was obviously really hurtful to be objectified that way,” she said.
Kight was not sexually active yet as a first-year, and while this was never an issue among her section-mates and other friends at Whitman, she said her debate teammates reacted negatively and continued to bring up her lack of sexual experience.
“At the time, I was just really embarrassed because people reacted so strongly,” she said. “I started acting more sexual because I felt that’s what was expected of me.”
Rising senior Tiffany Lewis, who debated for Whitman from 2010-2012 and later transferred to Western Kentucky University, felt that female debaters on the policy team were treated differently from their male teammates. Specifically, she felt that women were discouraged from partnering with other women during her time on the team.
“There was a sense that pairing females together would lead to too much cattiness. I never heard someone calling males on the policy team catty,” she said. “There have been multiple women on the team, just not partnerships [of women] …When it comes to partnering two girls together––that didn’t happen very often.”
Lewis felt she couldn’t always go to Hanson when she had concerns about sexual comments made toward other female teammates and financial concerns about not being able to afford Whitman.
“Females on the team, who may go to Jim crying for certain reasons, [would] be brushed off for being emotional, rather than [him] saying, â€˜This is a problem that I need to address,'” she said.
Because of her frustrations with debate culture and financial issues, Lewis eventually left the team.
“My current experience with the military, Marine Corps and army personnel, which have been considered to be one of the most sexist organizations in the United States, has been, overall, less sexist than my experience on the team,” she said.
Hanson said he has an open door policy, and he encouraged all students to bring concerns they may have to his attention. He also said that he has never told anyone he or she may be emotional or reactionary.
“I believe it is important to listen and understand student concerns, and I always take action to correct and resolve them,” he said.
While he has never personally observed sexual harassment on the team, Hanson said he would be sure to take steps to remedy these problems if he observed them.
“I take such concerns very seriously and I do not tolerate inappropriate behavior by team members or coaches. Consistent with the school’s policies, I report any such concerns to the College, and I follow the direction given to me,” he said.
Alumnus Ethan Robertson â€˜13, who was a debater on the parliamentary team from 2009 to 2011, said he only heard one moment of obvious sexism on the team, when a male debater told a female debater that only men can debate well. The woman responded quickly by spitting in the male debater’s face. After that, Robertson said he didn’t notice as many sexist comments toward women, whether subtle or overt.
“That’s not the best example of people trying to fight sexism, but it is an example of the fact that people knew the culture was there and were trying to stop it,” he said. “Even though some teammates and coaches may have said things that would have been sexist, there were people actively fighting against it. I don’t think sexism was a direct result of Jim’s behavior.”
Although Robertson only recalled one explicit incident, there were also many times he was unsure whether potentially sexist comments made by fellow team members were meant jokingly or seriously. This confusion occasionally put him in uncomfortable social settings with his teammates.
“There were some comments that were made about women, in general, but I think they were just trying to be offensive … things like â€˜women are lesser than men’ or â€˜women can’t do things that men can,'” he said. “It’s really hard to parse out when they’re being ironic, when they’re just trying to get a rise out of you and when they’re saying something that they actually believe.”
Robertson was particularly struck by how quickly he began to accept these comments as normal. Aspects of debate that had seemed problematic to him when he joined the team as a first-year, such as drinking with coaches and observing casual sexism, quickly became a regular part of participating in debate.
“Looking back on my time at debate, certain things seemed okay, and seemed that they were just a part of debate then, but now looking back on then, it’s like, â€˜Was that okay? Was that a thing that I should have done?'” he said.
Fighting sexism in debate
Some debaters experienced differences between Whitman’s team culture and debate culture on a broader scale. Alumna Emily Cordo ’02, who was a policy debater for four years, said that the overall culture of debate was incredibly sexist during her time on the team, but Whitman was an exception to that trend. At tournaments, she was persistently sexually harassed by the coach of another team, and eventually she decided to file a complaint about it at nationals. Although the complaint could have been risky for the team, Cordo said, Hanson fully supported her decision to take action.
During her time debating, Cordo said that judges and other debaters were often dismissive of women. For instance, on male-female teams, judges giving comments would occasionally attribute all statements made to the male member of the team, even if the woman was the one who actually said them. In response, the Whitman team developed a habit of responding to judges’ “He said …” by yelling “She said!” as a group.
The majority of current debaters interviewed for this article felt the team culture was no more sexist than society as a whole, and several also said that team culture has become more inclusive during their time on the team.
Debater Jean Erickson* said that because team members are so conscious of the way they speak, they are actually more likely to avoid sexist language than non-debaters are.
“It’s less of an issue than it would be on, say, a sports team. Sometimes the atmosphere is very locker-room-esque, but that’s a problem with broader social structures, not just the team,” she said.
She pointed out Hanson took her complaints of sexism on the team seriously.
“I think Jim has been very responsive, especially in recent years. Once when some team members were making some sexist jokes, I approached Jim about it, and he had me fill out a form immediately. He wants to know about these issues. It’s silly if people think that Jim is the problem, because he loves this team and this campus,” she said.
Many sources agreed that Hanson addressed their concerns regarding sexism on the team. Rising sophomore policy debater Meritt Salathe approached Hanson this past semester because she wanted to remain in her current partnership, and she felt he was attentive to her concerns.
“My partner and I are both women. We wanted to keep debating together because I think it gives women a better chance when they’re partnering with other women. Jim respected our wishes, and we’re still partners. He listened to everything we said in partner meetings, and he tries to give women good partners and make sure they’re winning too,” she said.
Cordo agreed that while she was on the team, Hanson created a supportive atmosphere that allowed women on the team to thrive.
“He gave us such confidence that [our gender] didn’t matter with the Whitman team, that we could demand to be treated better,” she said.
While rising senior and parliamentary debater Paige Joki similarly believes that the wider national debate community does have room for improvement regarding sexism, she also thinks that Hanson and other members on the team have been vigilant about enforcing gender equality on the Whitman debate team.
“Jim does his very best to make sure that we feel comfortable on the team, and that we feel respected both on the team and in the wider community,” said Joki. “I think the team is doing a great job, not just expecting its members to behave in [exclusive] ways, but also holding people accountable if someone says something wrong.”
In addition to sexist language, several ex-debaters also cited pressure to drink alcohol as one negative aspect of the social culture of debate.
Because Kight was one of the only team members who didn’t drink, she said the team often put her in situations where she felt unsafe.
At tournaments, the team frequently went to parties held by students at the host school. Kight said that once she was driven to an off-campus party by team members. As the night progressed, most of the people there were smoking marijuana, and she started to hear whispers that the police were on their way. She wanted to leave, but because someone had her driven there, she didn’t know how to get back to the hotel, so she felt she didn’t have a choice other than to stay at the party and hope nothing bad happened.
Kight stressed that the social culture of the team made it practically impossible for non-drinking debaters to avoid students who were drinking.
“Every time we were in a hotel, people had alcohol, people had marijuana on them,” she said.
Even though she didn’t drink at many of these tournaments, Kight said she was concerned because she was underage and her name was on the hotel room with the other students. The combination of sexual comments directed at her and heavy drinking also caused her to feel unsafe.
Robertson said pressure to drink was exacerbated by the fact that the assistant coaches employed while he was on the team often purchased alcohol for team parties and drank with debaters.
“I remember coming to Whitman and being pretty surprised at the fact that the assistant coaches were partying with the rest of the team, but over time, that became fairly normal for me, and it didn’t feel as out of place as it initially did,” he said.
Whitman student Nicole Seibert*, who stayed with the team as a prospective debate student, said she experienced a similar atmosphere during her time with the team. She recalled attending a party during debate prospective student weekend. The party had been listed on the schedule she received of the day’s activities as “fun,” so she felt it was likely that Hanson and other coaches were aware that the team had some type of party planned, though Hanson said he has always discouraged debaters from serving alcohol to high school students.
Although the weekend was supposed to be a welcoming event for prospective students, she said the party made her feel isolated.
“People were hanging out and playing beer pong and people were just drinking and talking, not really talking to me, so I just felt uncomfortable,” she said.
While she didn’t experience overt pressure to drink, Seibert felt as though the social setting made it difficult not to.
“It wasn’t like they were saying, â€˜You have to drink this 40 or you’re a pussy.’ It wasn’t overt pressure … There was definitely a sense that everyone else was drinking and it was expected that I would,” she said.
Team members were also passing around marijuana at the party, and though she didn’t especially want to smoke, she did so to feel welcomed and included by the team.
“It wasn’t like I wanted to be smoking at the time, especially not with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but … they also weren’t really making an effort to include me in their conversations. So I thought it would help me loosen up, or help me be a part of that group somehow,” she said.
Like Kight, she felt she was put in a vulnerable position because she was unfamiliar with the campus and didn’t know how to get back to the residence hall she was staying in for the weekend.
“If I had wanted to leave at that point, I wouldn’t have been able to figure out a way to get home. I really did want to leave. I pretty much wanted to leave from the moment I got there,” she said.
A debater at the party offered to walk her home. At that point, she was both high and drunk, which made her very disoriented. She remembered him making a comment that she looked cold, then saying, “Let’s get you inside,” before leading her back to his room, which was in a different residence hall from the one she was staying in.
“I didn’t really know where we were. I sort of took him at his word,” she said. “We were in his room sitting on his bed. Before I really knew what was happening, he started making out with me and groping me.”
She told him to stop and to take her back to her room, which he did. She did not report the incident to anyone.
Hanson said he was unaware of any incidents where prospective students had been sexually assaulted, and said he would have reported them to the college immediately if he had known. He also said he was not aware of any instances of prospective students drinking with the team.
“We have always followed the instructions provided by the admission office for prospective students. I have always discouraged situations where high school students were exposed to alcohol,” he said in an email.
Although she ended up coming to Whitman, Seibert also never felt comfortable on the team or like she fit in to the team culture. She said there was a joking atmosphere on the team, and teammates regularly made sexist and racist comments and brushed them off. She recalled a teammate once referring to Arabs as “angry towel heads” during practice.
“I was brand new on the team so I didn’t want to be that girl who’s like, â€˜Actually, you guys are being assholes right now.’ I was put in an uncomfortable position, so I didn’t say anything,” she said.
Seibert ultimately decided to quit the team a year after she joined.
Kight had a similarly negative experience with her first year on debate. She felt she was expected to hang out with other debaters constantly, and her desire to be involved in other activities on campus was viewed as a sign of her being insufficiently committed to the team. Although many debaters view the tight-knit nature of the team as a positive aspect of their debate experience, Kight said that atmosphere made it much harder for students who didn’t want to party or drink as much to participate.
“We couldn’t really band together because all of our reactions were to find friends elsewhere,” she said.
Eventually, Kight’s negative experiences and the team’s expectations led her to quit. She made her decision close to the end of her first year.
“I wasn’t going to be able to function with the kind of social life it seemed to require of me,” she said.
Responses to party culture
Hanson said he supports students who choose not to drink. In addition, he said the team has taken steps to curtail inappropriate use of alcohol. In the past, the team has had a policy which prohibits students and coaches from having more than two drinks in the evening while at debate tournaments.
Team members also have the opportunity to socialize at alcohol-free debate-sponsored events. When alcohol is present at these sponsored events, students are expected to follow the rules outlined in the Whitman Student Handbook.
“I sympathize strongly with the students who choose not to drink, as I do not drink alcohol. I lead by example, and I readily support students who have made this choice,” said Hanson. “Our program has discouraged excessive drinking at tournaments since I have been director.”
In September 2012, the college made changes to the two-drink policy to simply state, “Coaches are expected not to party with students and should always conduct themselves in responsible and appropriate ways.”
Hanson said that if he observes a violation of team policies, or if a student or coach notifies him of a concern, he has appropriate ways of dealing with the situation.
“The typical response is to address the particular situation and, where appropriate, to not allow the student to compete in the next tournament,” he said.
Kight’s and Seibert’s experiences were several years ago, and many current debate students interviewed for this article agreed that drinking was not specifically an aspect of debate culture, but rather part of college culture in general. Alumna Miranda Morton ’13, who debated on the parliamentary team for four years, was adamant that the team is not an exception to the Whitman norm.
“I think that college is a time when all young people find themselves in situations where they can experiment with alcohol or they can choose not to do that. At Whitman there are plenty of people who drink and plenty of people who don’t drink. That’s the same thing on the debate team,” she said.
Joki also believes that when criticizing the debate team, people often look at the way debaters behave at social events not actually sponsored by the debate team and then may see their individual actions as a reflection of the entire team.
“The difficulty I see lies in the administration’s failure to differentiate people’s actions as individuals and people’s actions as debaters. So I think that there is a conflation oftentimes that students, no matter what they do, are always debaters,” said Joki.
Morton emphasized that while some debaters do drink alcohol together, they also often find opportunities to socialize with one another without consuming alcohol.
“There is pressure on the team to spend time together, and that is to grow a community and to make sure we’re not together just in an academic setting, so that when we travel together, we know each other and feel comfortable with each other. That has nothing to do with the use of alcohol; in my view, it is often facilitated with things like dinners, movies or softball,” Morton said.
*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.
continue to part two