Support from the University for Iowa debate has been on a slow, steady decline from its peak in the early 1990s. University support for facilities and some staffing remains adequate, but, as discretionary resources at the University have declined, inexorably reductions to debate’s year-over-year operational budgets have occurred. Our debaters and the graduate assistants carry the brunt of these reductions as their opportunities to travel and succeed are reduced.
A typical tournament appearance not requiring air travel costs $2500 for 1 team and 1 coach (which covers hotel, per diem, entry, transport for driving tournaments); for a team to fly to a tournament increases costs to over $5000. To manage those expenses, the program purchases its airline travel months in advance to capture the best prices, but doing so also limits opportunities for emerging teams to travel if their performance warrants it. No longer do you go if you deserve to go.
In turn, those resource constraints undermine the competitiveness of the team. When seniors left in the past, gaps were filled because younger debaters had the tournament experience to be competitively successful. Multiple teams went to the highest caliber tournaments, were judged by the top judges to improve argumentative skill and gained invaluable round experience by competing against the best teams and with the best judges. Regional tournaments do not have the same quality of competition and judging. While those tournaments are appropriate for some of our debaters, increasingly they are becoming the only alternative as the ability to travel nationally declines.
The inability to travel more than one team inevitably impacts recruiting. We can’t recruit top-level talent to Iowa if we can’t commit to traveling them and providing them with the support needed for success. Through existing endowments, we have resources to provide competitive scholarships to both in- and out-of-state students and the UI academically remains an attractive destination for prospective debaters. Getting the attention of talent is not a problem. Getting them to come and stay at Iowa increasingly is.
Inadequate travel funds are symptomatic of other operational deficits facing the program. Staffing to support the team is becoming a concern. With Dr. Hingstman’s departure from the Department of Communication Studies, their support for our graduate students has been slashed. Even before that most recent cut, we lacked access to coaching support to assist with research and argument preparation. Compared with other top programs, our graduate students bear a disproportionate burden of travel/judging/coaching demands, which puts undue pressure on their graduate work. In turn, we are not producing graduate students that win academic awards because their commitment to the ACBDF diverts their attention from their academic work. The program cannot keep asking our graduate students to sacrifice their education for the good of the team and doing so strains the credibility of debate within the university.
Within those annual operational budgets, the program frequently must balance whether to purchase appropriate supplies (computers and related equipment) and the research tools available for students to do their work (yearly fees for databases, subscriptions, and research materials). In the year that Iowa won the National Debate Tournament, an additional, unplanned $10,000 was spent on books and other materials, but there is no question that those purchases helped Iowa to win the national championship. As we all know, you have to produce new arguments to win.
Similarly, Iowa presently has no effective way to capture performance data. Our competitors use cameras to stream debates back to the home office so those that are behind can follow along to do additional research, argument prep, provide remote coaching, or to offer post-round instruction for improvement. Many of us remember Dave’s tape archive – this is its modern equivalent. The year Iowa won the Copeland Award, we had an assistant who would video debates so we could dissect the competitors – we were ahead of the competition at that time. Now, we sit on the sidelines because we don’t have the capability.
Inevitably, these operational shortfalls make sustained success at Iowa an anomaly as there are fewer debaters and coaches going to fewer tournaments.
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