Since 1921, Concordia has been home to a renowned intercollegiate debate team. But nearly a century later, the college has announced that it will be cutting the debate team. Starting at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the team will no longer receive funding. While it will continue competing, no new members will be recruited. Current participants of the team, many of whom have received scholarships for their involvement, will not lose their financing.
According to Susan Larson, dean of the college at Concordia, this decision is a result of ongoing financial struggles at the school. For years, the college has examined its programs and their progress. Even though the debate program influences its members in a myriad of positive ways, the debate team’s impact on the community as a whole has been minimal. Despite its efforts, this impact has been limited by the location of Concordia. No other liberal arts colleges in a six-state region have this particular type of debate program, which hinders regional opportunities available to the team.
“We are looking for opportunities that will provide more local and regional experiences for our students,” Larson said.
Concordia’s decision to terminate the program has evoked feelings of frustration and disappointment in the debate program’s faculty, members and alumni.
Fred Sternhagen, director of debate, fosters no animosity toward the decision makers but is bewildered at the verdict.
“I’m confused about the decision making and I am very frustrated by what seems to be a lack of focus upon the education experience provided for Concordia undergraduates,” Sternhagen said.
A junior at Concordia and member of the debate team, John Boals, like several other members, chose to attend Concordia mainly because of the stellar reputation of its debate program. This year marks Boals’ third year on the school’s debate team, and his experience has aided him in learning and bettering essential skills. The ability to critically listen and respond to individuals with opposing opinions has been one of the most valuable skills that have been enhanced by his time on the team.
“I think that one of the biggest issues that American society faces now is an inability to listen to other people,” Boals said. “Debate and communication have the opportunity to really teach people how to listen to each other and to understand that arguments aren’t personal.”
Though the style of debate currently practiced is coming to an end, an alternative program is in the works at Concordia, Larson said.
Parliamentary debate, as opposed to policy debate, is a more impromptu debate form. While debaters practicing policy debate are required to conduct a great deal of intense research on a specific area of a topic, parliamentary debate doesn’t require participants to delve as deeply into its subjects. Teams are presented with the matter of deliberation only after arriving at the meet. Then, debaters are granted around 15 minutes for preparation without the use of the internet. This debating format allows participants to engage in debate without having to probe the subject as meticulously, making it more accessible to students.
While he recognizes that there are certain benefits to parliamentary debate, Sternhagen maintains that parliamentary debate can’t provide students with the same level of academic challenge as policy debate, which has been practiced by Concordia students for decades.
“I think it is structurally weaker than what we’re doing now because they’re not supposed to use evidence,” Sternhagen said. “They’re supposed to speak from common knowledge.”
The fact that the program is set to expire after next year hasn’t deterred participants from working to achieve their goals for competitive success. This year, the team will be sending one team of two debaters to the national competition. In the last 11 years, Concordia has sent six teams to the National Debate Tournament. Later this month, Caleb Prost and Elliot Harvanko will become the 34th team from Concordia to compete at the tournament.