After a four-year journey since their founding, the UC San Diego Speech and Debate Team has conquered the Southern California competition scene. Now, they argue for their next goal: official status as a program from the university itself.
From Oct. 24 to 26, Point Loma Nazarene University hosted one of the most prestigious speech and debate competitions in Southern California: the 2021 Sunset Cliffs Classic Forensics Tournament.
In the tournament, students from universities ranging from University of Southern California to Vanderbilt competed to present the best arguments across the two categories of speech and debate, claiming successes for both themselves and the schools they represent.
By the competition’s end, the UC San Diego Speech and Debate Team won the prestigious 4-Year School First Place Sweepstakes Award, an honor presented to the school with the best overall performance.
When describing the team’s experience in the competition, head coach Robert Campbell said he “felt that Dwight Eisenhower invading Europe on D-Day.”
Of the team’s ranks of 98 active members, a staggering 62 UCSD students brandished their skills at the Sunset Cliffs tournament.
The team boasts a large number of trophies, overfilling their school-granted trophy case. Unlike most Speech and Debate teams, however, the UCSD team’s trophy case does not reside within the Communications Department, but rather in the Rady School of Management.
Though most speech and debate teams remain within the Communications Departments of other schools, the UCSD Communications Department has declined the team’s requests.
“Our communications department has been asked twice, if they would like to work with me to build a program, and they have, courteously, responded with ‘no, we have no interest in doing that, all we do is teach theory over here,” Campbell explained. “So, even though I believe theory, in order to be validated, needs to be put to practice … practicing communication theory means that you practice speech and debate. But that’s why; the only reason that this debate program is over at the business school is because that’s where I am.”
The team’s strong connection to Rady stems from their unique journey as a team. Despite their size and skill, the UCSD Speech and Debate Team remains a Student-Run Organization (SRO).
The team has failed thus far to convince the administration to formally recognize them.
UCSD Speech and Debate first took off in the early 2000s, spearheaded by Professor Danny Cantrell. Cantrell is now a well-known figure in the speech and debate field due to his role in creating the tournament management software used to this day.
“But Danny left for his other job, around 2006,” Campbell said.
The minute Speech and Debate lost its faculty advisor, as an SRO, the program “died,” according to Campell, “because then it literally was up to the kids to pay for their own fees to go to any tournaments.”
The club struggled onwards until Spring Quarter of 2018, when the final two remaining members of the team approached Professor Campbell.
Campbell praised his own alma mater’s Speech and Debate program in his lectures. Thus, the hopeful students sought out Campbell and asked him to be their faculty advisor.
“I said, ‘respectfully, no, I won’t,’” Campbell recounted to The UCSD Guardian. “‘What I will do though, is I will be your Head Coach of an entirely new effort to build a full forensics program here at UCSD, starting with Speech and Debate.”
As head coach, Campbell finds and prepares the team for tournaments, handles their funding, and teaches students debating skills. He is a potent force in the team’s drive to grow bigger and gain recognition.
After establishing their goal, the UCSD Speech and Debate Team officially began in the fall quarter of 2018, made up of just under two dozen students. As the team started out, everything remained experimental.
While Coach Campbell secured classrooms to practice in with Rady, the students stepped up as well. They developed a system in which senior members volunteered their time to bring incoming members up to speed.
As an SRO, the team relies on Rady’s classrooms to practice and organize for their tournaments. Yet without the university’s official support, the team is left without consistent funding.
“I’ve paid all of the debate tournament attendance fees and expenses, for four years, out of my own pocket,” said Campbell.
Though Campbell has been able to receive reimbursement for the team’s expenses, it can be a “bureaucratic” process, and the implications are frightening. As Professor Campbell nears the end of his teaching career and looks towards retirement, his primary concern rests with the team.
“The dilemma is how this incredibly successful, student-centered, highly-motivated set of top students get the monkey off their back of perpetually facing extinction when somebody like me retires,” Campbell said to The Guardian.
Much like with Danny Cantrell’s early 2000s team, as a Student-Run Organization, the students could lack the funding and support to continue their efforts if they lost their faculty advisor.
Campbell put off retiring for a specific reason: he intends to fight for the Speech and Debate Team’s position as an official UCSD program before he leaves the school.
In Campbell’s own research, he discovered that “the recurring and number one critique of college graduates is that they don’t know how to make a presentation to management, or to their team, and they couldn’t win an argument if their life depended on it.”
He believes that the university is lacking in their attempts to teach these skills, commenting that “The communications department of this giant university has one public speaking class. That’s it. That’s it.”
Campbell critiques the university, saying that despite its claims of being “student-centered,” UCSD isn’t properly doing its job unless it trains students in public speaking skills as well.
“Because if we are not formally preparing these kids to go out in the real world of business, and be able to research, organize and then present and persuade people, we’re not doing the full job,” Campbell told The Guardian.
Campbell also emphasizes the engagement that the Speech and Debate Team brings. He recounted a conversation he heard between one of his peers and Dean of Rady, Lisa Ordóñez.
“There is one organization, though, on campus, that appears to be fully engaged, and that’s Speech and Debate,” Ordóñez commented to Cambell.
With the team’s increasing momentum, winning four sweepstakes awards across only three tournaments during Fall Quarter 2021, Campbell describes the team as a “juggernaut of successes.”
Due to their competitive nature, Campbell and the team are often accused of “chasing gold-colored plastic,” referring to the wooden and plastic trophies offered at tournaments.
However, despite all the success the team has found in competitions, they have yet to travel to an out-of-state tournament, or even one beyond southern California. The team’s opportunities are severely limited due to lack of funding and the ever-looming pandemic.
Campbell described his experience as a collegiate debater in a program in which he traveled the nation to compete. He hopes to offer his own team members the opportunity to do the same before he retires.
The members of the team share Campbell’s vision for the organization and in the struggles to elevate their status. Gregory Shen, the team’s social media chair, remembered his reaction after first hearing about the team’s status.
“Initially, when I joined the team, I was really passionate about Coach’s mission, and I had had lunch with him one time, and he had talked about the challenges that we talked about earlier,” Shen told The Guardian. “It really got me kind of mad at the school for the first time ever in my academic career, cause it seemed like they were underestimating us. And what I really want is for the school to take us seriously.”
The head coach urges the university to prioritize the Speech and Debate Team in the same way that they would prioritize any intercollegiate competitive matter.
“What I’m striving to do is to get the university’s attention at the same level that the basketball team has achieved,” Campbell explained.
As UCSD transitions to Division I success in many sports, the Speech and Debate Team hopes to find itself a place in the evolution of UCSD’s competitive presence.
“We’re supposed to be an academic institution first,” Campbell insisted. “And we have the golden opportunity to demonstrate the strength of our academic efforts by supporting the one endeavor of intercollegiate competition that is totally academic, and that is Speech and Debate.”
Photo courtesy of Gregory Shen.