By Emily Younker
When Steve Doubledee graduated from high school, left the dairy farm where he grew up and arrived in Joplin, he visited three places.
The first, a recruiting office for the U.S. Army, wasn’t a good fit for him. Neither was the mall, where he had inquired about an open position at a shoe store.
But his third stop was the debate office at Missouri Southern State University, where he said he was promptly offered a scholarship that launched a long student and professional career in debate.
Doubledee debated for MSSU from 1988 to 1991 and again in 1998 before earning his bachelor’s degree. Never having been out of the state before, he traveled to such places as New York and Chicago for debate competitions.
And he still remembers the first time he, a self-proclaimed country boy, had the chance to debate against a team from the University of California-Berkeley — and won.
“That’s what that program does is lets those kids realize that they can succeed, and they don’t have to go to Berkeley to do it, and they’re just as good as the Ivy League,” said Doubledee, who is now the assistant director of forensics at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. “We just want to ensure that that pathway is there for others.”
He and dozens of other alumni of the MSSU debate program plan to meet Saturday night at the Mohaska Farmhouse restaurant in Joplin to rally against what they perceive to be the slow elimination of that program by university administrators.
Doubledee, who helped launch a “Save the MSSU Debate Team” Facebook group early last year, said little is being done to recruit students to the debate program or to fill its vacant director position. He said he thinks that inaction is causing the program to quietly be phased out.
“When that happens, we automatically realize that was a perfect opportunity to let it die on the vine,” he said.
Kelly Larson, the former director of the program, said no students are currently participating in debate because there is no director. That position opened a year ago when he stepped down to become the head of the communication department, and it has gone unfilled since then, he said.
“It hasn’t been cut, but it hasn’t been added,” he said.
The position is not currently being advertised, according to Richard Miller, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. The university would look for a candidate to be a full-time faculty member in addition to debate coach, and he said there are no faculty openings in the communication department. The most recently advertised position, for an assistant professor of public relations, closed in February.
“I’m not saying that the program is being shut down, but we actually have to have a faculty position that we would add the position of forensics coach to,” Miller said. “Right now, we don’t have the vacancies and we don’t have the demand to create an additional faculty position so we can have a debate coach.”
A qualified faculty member from the communication department — or another department on campus — could assume coaching responsibilities, but there seems to be no interest or potential candidates, Miller said. He also said he doesn’t think students could undertake management of a debate team on their own.
“They would need a coach, and it has to be someone with experience,” he said. “It’s a competitive team, and just like in athletics, someone has to teach them how to do it.”
Paul Hood, a 1994 MSSU graduate and a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Ore., said he agrees that a skilled debate coach is necessary to having a program, and he questioned why the position has gone unfilled for so long.
“My concern is that the debate team has essentially been eliminated in practice, if not officially,” he said.
Hood said participating on the debate team as an MSSU student “made a gigantic difference” in transforming him from the worst public speaker in his class to someone at ease in front of an audience. It also prepared him for success in his profession, he said.
“When I was in the public defender system, I started working on a lot of DNA cases, and there’s a level of detail and analysis and knowledge of science associated with that, but also very much an ability to present complicated information to people that are not familiar with that area of study,” he said. “I’ve had some success on DNA cases that I think were very much impacted by my ability to question people and ask questions that were picked up by my being on the debate team.”
KELLY LARSON, head of the communication department at MSSU, said administrators could postpone a decision about the future of the debate program until they see the outcome of a procedure called program prioritization, which is an effort to scrutinize more than 130 of the university’s academic and nonacademic programs. The internal group that has been reviewing each program is expected to recommend to the Board of Governors what, if any, changes should be made.