Debate team sorts through gender issues

Whitman’s team has been suspended from official competition over federal Title IX concerns.

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WALLA WALLA — Whitman College’s debate team has been suspended from some functions because of Title IX infractions in late October according to a recent report in the school’s student newspaper, the Whitman Pioneer.

The team is suspended indefinitely from official competition and traveling while it undergoes workshops focused on countering gender discrimination. Title IX is a national law passed in 1972 that requires gender equity in school programs that receive federal funding.

Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland told the Pioneer in its Nov. 7 edition that the suspension was mainly so that debate team members could focus on gender equality training and improving the atmosphere around the team.

“It is our belief that halting competition would ensure that all team members could participate in the training,” Cleveland said, “and that it would send the clearest possible message to the team, coaches and others that Whitman expects to have a program whose culture and environment enables all participants to thrive.”

This isn’t the first time the debate team has been the focus of a Title IX investigation.

In the spring of 2012, the team was investigated for similar allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, according to The Pioneer.

No action was taken publicly as a result of that investigation. However longtime debate coach Jim Hanson resigned his post in April to focus on the chairmanship of a new rhetorical studies department at Whitman.

In an email Friday to the Union-Bulletin, first-year coach Kevin Kuswa said the suspensions will last “until the team demonstrates progress in improving the environment on the team.”

Kuswa said he hopes the team will be able to resume competing at some point next semester.

“We have to show substantial progress (toward gender equality) as a team, which we are doing through training sessions, team discussions, improvements in team policy, providing space for team members to comment to the group or anonymously, researching these areas, hosting forums on these issues, supporting the women’s debate institute, and more,” he said.

Kuswa said the effects of the team’s suspension on its competitiveness are hard to gauge.

“We are missing some tournaments right now,” Kuswa wrote. “It will affect us competitively, but (it’s) hard to tell how much until the end of the season.”

Ben Wentz can be reached at benwentz@wwub.com or 526-8315.

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