Whitman Debate Team Suspended Due to Discrimination

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Whitman Debate Team Suspended Due to Discrimination

Sarah Cornett

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This article was co-authored by Hannah Bartman and Sarah Cornett.

The administration has suspended the Whitman debate team’s competition and traveling privileges for an indefinite period in a direct response to a Title IX investigation. The decision was announced to the team at a meeting with debate students and coaches on Oct. 22 by Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, prohibiting them from participating in debate tournaments.

In late August, a Title IX complaint was filed regarding gender discrimination on the debate team. When a Title IX complaint is filed, a college is legally obligated to begin an investigation immediately, so Whitman administrators conducted an investigation that ended in early October. The results of this investigation inspired the administration’s recent decision.

“Specifically in response to recent complaints about the Whitman debate program that were substantiated in an investigation last month, it was decided to halt temporarily the debate team’s participation in intercollegiate competition effective immediately,” said Cleveland in an email.

Due to privacy concerns, the college cannot release specific details regarding the Title IX complaint that spurred the investigation.

Whitman’s debate team has been the focus of a Title IX investigation in the past. An investigation was conducted in the spring of 2012 regarding an instance of sexual assault that occurred during the 2010 High School Debate Tournament hosted at Whitman. However, Cleveland confirmed that the travel suspension is unrelated to this past investigation.

“Each case is looked at separately,” he said.

Motivations for suspension

The reason for the suspension, as provided by debaters and administrators, was to give the team more time to focus on eradicating issues of sexism. Cleveland stated that the team needed this time to step away from competition and dedicate its energies to workshops on eliminating inequalities in team culture.

“The purpose of this action is to engage team members and coaches in mandatory training focusing on gender and racial discrimination,” said Cleveland. “It is our belief that halting competition would ensure that all team members could participate in the training and that it would send the clearest possible message to the team, coaches and others that Whitman expects to have a program whose culture and environment enables all participants to thrive.”

A mandatory training workshop was hosted on Oct. 26 at Whitman by Tamara King, a professor and administrator at Washington University in St. Louis and a nationally recognized expert on gender and race discrimination issues. As part of their suspension, Director of Debate Kevin Kuswa, the assistant debate coaches and the debate team members were required to attend this seven-hour workshop. According to students and administrators, a second workshop is planned for some time in December. Sophomore Margaret Rockey, a policy debater, said that King facilitated discussion based on concerns the administration had concerning team culture.

“We talked about things that the administration feels is a problem that not necessarily everyone on the team feels is a problem,” said Rockey. “She asked if anyone had an experience where they’ve felt uncomfortable, and we all talked about that. So what are ways that we can minimize the risks and problems that could arise.”

Rockey also said concerns over team drinking culture, relationships within the team, offensive music being played in the practice room and inclusion of underclassmen students were all discussed.

Debate team reactions

The team made plans to reduce discriminatory practices at the start of the academic year. Senior Ben Menzies, a policy debater, cited specific actions that the team took during the prep session in August to address discriminatory comments.

“Our new policy [assistant] coach, Andy Larson, was very good at policing the language of the space. When it veered towards being a little too much like a locker room, he would say ‘locker room, cut it out,'” said Menzies.

Additionally, the team has had weekly meetings that provide an open floor for discussion of various issues, discrimination included.

“We have meetings every Tuesday and almost every meeting we talk about steps we can take to make the team more inclusive,” said Rockey.

Menzies states that he believes the team has markedly improved its culture from previous years.

“Certainly from my standpoint, which obviously is a privileged one, the culture is vastly different this year, and certainly from when I joined the team, and even markedly from last year,” he said.

Given this heightened awareness in team culture, the decision to suspend travel shocked many debaters. According to sophomore policy debater Emma Thompson, the administration announced the decision to suspend the team with little notice, notifying the coaches only one hour prior to the announcement to the team. Cleveland and Kaufman-Osborn announced the decision to the team in the two-hour question-and-answer forum on Oct. 22, but students were still left with unaddressed concerns.

Rockey said she was frustrated because the administration did not give the team a specific justification for their decision to halt traveling privileges during the meeting on Oct. 22. Instead, they expressed broad concerns regarding a discriminatory culture on the team.

“The team has no idea why this has happened,” said Rockey. “The team has been under scrutiny from the administration for many years, and all of those times where the administration has taken action against the team, we’ve had the same questions: What’s wrong and what is the justification for this action?”

During the meeting, the administration told the team they had been considering suspending travel privileges for some time. Members of the team were upset that the administration was not in communication with them during their decision-making process.

“One thing that was made clear by Tim [Kaufman-Osborn] was that this decision was a long time in coming. It was a product of a lot of discussion with legal counsel. It certainly had been percolating for a while, which was one reason we were so surprised that we hadn’t heard anything about it, or any sort of hint at it,” said Menzies.

This is not the first time the debate team has been dissatisfied with their interactions with the administration. According to an investigation by the The Pioneer conducted last May, many debaters and members of the debate community were unhappy with the handling of the 2012 Title IX investigation. Those interviewed for the investigation said that the questions asked by the administration were problematic because they were incriminating towards the debate culture and then-current head coach, Jim Hanson.

Then, in April of last year, Professor of Rhetoric Studies Jim Hanson stepped down as director of debate, leaving the team without a director and only a few months to find a replacement. Kevin Kuswa, the former director of debate at Fresno State University, was ultimately hired and assumed the position on Aug. 15. The conditions of his contract became a source of contention between debate team members involved in the hiring process and the administration.

“We expected [Kuswa] to be hired as an interim director for a year, and then for there to be a subsequent search that would take place this year that he could apply for. Instead the process bypassed that,” said Menzies.

This decision to halt traveling privileges will alter the debate team’s entire competitive season because it will force them to miss fall and winter tournaments. For Menzies, a senior, this decision is cutting his career as a competitive collegiate debater short.

“This suspension is occurring as the season peaks –– it’s a little like suspending an athletic team right as conference play begins. Even if we are reinstated, we’ll need to do a lot of work to get the rust off,” he said. “Obviously time is short for me and my fellow seniors.”

Future plans to alleviate discrimination

The team is responding to concerns raised by the administration by taking steps outside of the workshops to establish a plan to alleviate inequalities. Team members and coaches drafted a letter to the debate community announcing the suspension and establishing their plans for moving forward. Their goals included establishing awareness of inequality, additional training and educational sessions, establishing clear team guidelines and policies, and providing equal opportunities to students.

Dear Debate Community 10-26-13 by WhitmanPioneer

In an email interview, Kuswa said that he was pleased with the team’s progress, though it will take time to overcome the issues that instigated the suspension.

“The team is doing very well and making some good progress in key areas. We are working to overcome a culture that had become comfortable for some of the team and inhospitable for others. That is hard to reverse, but it can be done,” he said in an email.

Thompson feels that Kuswa has exhibited an appropriate concern for creating a climate of equality in the team.

“I think Kevin is doing a really good job, and I think it would be pretty clear with anyone familiar with him that he cares a lot about [preventing gender discrimination],” she said. “He’s been involved in the debate community for a long time addressing issues about discrimination and sexism in the debate community, and I think that he will continue to do that.”

The team is continuing to practice and some members have developed a draft of a plan of action to send to the administration. The plan of action details their specific goals in markedly altering team culture to be more inclusive. Goals include developing a clear and consistent set of repercussions for inappropriate behavior, placing an anonymous comment and complaint box on Kuswa’s door, requiring headphones in the prep room, starting institutionalized mentoring, promoting dry social events, advocating for issues of discrimination and harassment in debate, and recruiting new team members, particularly among under-represented groups.

Plan of Action by WhitmanPioneer

Though travel and competition have been suspended, the team is still meeting at regular practice times and continuing its involvement with the high school tournament it is hosting this week.

Regardless of the team’s actions and progress, the administration has given them no specific benchmarks or requirements in order to lift the suspension. Menzies said administrators emphasized during a conference call last week that there is no defined endpoint to the suspension.

“It will last until they will have deemed there to be demonstrable progress. Again, on what benchmarks, we don’t know,” he said.

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