This team talks its way to the top

Budget squeeze puts Towson University debate program at risk

  • Towson University's debate team includes seniors Deverick Murray, front left, and Adam Jackson who infuse their arguments with their experience of growing up black in Baltimore.
Towson University's debate team includes seniors Deverick… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
January 19, 2010|By Childs Walker | childs.walker@baltsun.com

Towson University debaters have always been a scrappy bunch compared to their rivals from Harvard, Wake Forest and Northwestern.

They're used to cramming into a van for 16-hour drives to Atlanta and Chicago and sleeping in worn motels where the heat fails in January. The top pairs receive guidance from coach Beth Skinner and a few part-time assistants while their best opponents often rely on armadas of full-time coaches and graduate students to feed them arguments.

"It's a real David and Goliath story," says Christopher "Kit" Spicer, Towson's dean for fine arts and communication. "It would be kind of like our football team taking on the University of Nebraska."

But Towson's debaters worry that state cuts have left the budget so tight that their giant-slaying days are near an end.

Last fall, several rounds of state-ordered cuts to the university system led Towson to slash travel expenses across departments. By late December, those cuts had left the debate budget $5,000 in the red. Suspension of the season seemed a real possibility. The program's national ranking fell from 11th in fall 2008 to 53rd in fall 2009, largely because Towson couldn't send as many players to as many tournaments.

Spicer and Provost Marcia Welsh found $25,000 in the academic budget so that Towson's best pairs will be able to compete in key national tournaments over the next three months. But the budget strains have produced divisions within the team, which has about 15 members. Freshmen and sophomores who would have gained valuable experience at regional tournaments have been unable to travel at all. They hone their craft week after week without any hope of testing their mettle in real competition. That has led to grumbling about the few pairs who get to travel.

"It's very tense, because people want to compete," says Dayvon Love, who won a national championship for Towson in 2008 and helps coach the current team. "It impedes the growth of the younger debaters."

Fueled by innovative debaters from Baltimore City schools, Towson has become a national power in college debate, one that can stand toe to toe with far wealthier and more established programs. In a world of white, male privilege, most of Towson's elite performers are black and hail from neighborhoods where college seemed far from a given destination. They see debate as a platform to argue for social justice and prepare themselves for long lives of activism.

"Some people will use the skills they learn from debate for evil ends," says Adam Jackson, a senior from Baltimore who forms Towson's No. 1 pair with fellow Baltimorean Deverick Murray. "I'm developing the tools I need to fight those people. I want to make the whole community smarter."

The best debaters worry that without traveling to top tournaments, underclassmen will be unprepared to carry on the team's legacy of excellence in two or three years.

"The only way I was able to get to the level I am now," Murray says, "is that as a sophomore, I was able to travel to all those tournaments and get beat bad. I learned from it."

Without such development, "I think that our future is in jeopardy," Skinner says.

Spicer hopes to negotiate a more robust annual budget for the team so every year won't be a scramble. He believes in debate, both as an intellectual training exercise and as a recruiting tool for promising urban students. He says he's optimistic that Welsh will make a "good faith" effort to give the team enough money to remain competitive nationally.

Towson's best pairs have stormed the college debate world in part by chopping at its white, male underpinnings.

Murray and Jackson graduated from Digital Harbor High School and discovered their love of formalized argument in the Baltimore Urban Debate League. They chose Towson largely because of its debate scholarships (the Towson program offers about $200,000 a year in aid).

When they arrived, the team was dominated by Eastern European imports who stuck to traditional approaches. But Love, Murray, Jackson and others decided to personalize their arguments, to speak frankly about the difficulties of entering the stuffy debate world as black men from Baltimore.

Jackson remembers his eureka moment. During a debate in New York his freshman year, he listened to a white opponent reel off clever facts about school busing in front of an audience full of white faces. When it was his turn, he says, "I just get up and go nuts. I say this has no relevance to my experience as a black person. I throw my papers down.

"I never wanted to feel that way again," he says. "I didn't want to play it as a game. I wanted to approach it as something that means something to me."

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