A Legacy Of Excellence

April 27, 2007

The year was 1893. School colors had not been determined at Baylor University, nor had the mascot. But organized debate had been a matter of course almost since Baylor College opened in 1846, with four rival student societies meeting weekly to mount a bloodless battle of words.

That year, the purely local nature of debates at Baylor changed when two of those societies, the Philomathesian and the Erisophian, combined forces and challenged the University of Texas to a match. Representing Baylor's Philomathesian Society was Pat Neff, later governor of Texas and president of Baylor. Tom Connally, a future U.S. senator, stood for the Erisophians. Students at Baylor chartered a train to Austin to watch the match. The next year more than 5,000 spectators turned out for a return engagement at the Cotton Palace in Waco.

Baylor formally took over the debate program in 1923 and modern debaters follow strict rules that early orators might have scoffed at. But since debate's beginnings, a pantheon of illustrious speakers crossed Baylor's threshold. Ann Richards, only the second woman in the state to become governor of Texas, entered Baylor in 1950 on a debate scholarship. Later she told Baylor audiences that Glenn Capp, who ran Baylor debate for an unprecedented 36 years, "taught me how to say it." Barbara Jordan, a Texan celebrated for her oratory, helped Baylor racially integrate debate even though she was not a Baylor student. Scores of lawyers give credit to the program for teaching them how to think, research, talk - even for introducing them to their future spouses.

Pat Neff, governor of Texas from 1921 to 1925 and president of Baylor from 1932 to 1947, participated in Baylor's first intercollegiate debate in 1893. In fact, four of Baylor's former presidents were debaters: Neff, Samuel Palmer Brooks, William R. White and Abner V. McCall.

Healthy support

Matt Gerber directs today's Baylor debaters from a paper-stuffed suite of offices in Castellaw Communications Center. He coaches 20 students, usually fields six teams at tournaments and describes Baylor's program as one of the larger university programs in the country.

"We are blessed to have very generous alumni and a strong travel budget," Gerber says. That healthy budget means that he and his teams went to three almost back-to-back tournaments in early January before hosting Baylor's own later in the month. He also dangles eight debate scholarships, two a year, to recruits. These provided a worthwhile antidote several years ago to stiff competition for top students. Recipients of the full scholarships work between 30 and 40 hours a week on debate, Gerber says.

You can't have a job," says Halli Tripe, a junior whom Gerber recruited for Baylor when she attended a debate camp for high school students in Kansas. But she is not complaining. Full tuition scholarships from Baylor, funded through endowments and based on her skills as a top debater, allowed her to get away from her small hometown in Kearney, Neb., and out of her comfort zone. "I am pretty liberal and outspoken. I wanted more diversity," she says. The Baylor award also lifted a financial burden from her parents, who have two other children's educations to finance.

Tripe arrived here knowing little about Baylor, and is pleased with her choice. Because of debate, she has switched majors from political science to communication studies and is interested in political rhetoric. She plans on going to graduate school and becoming a debate coach or a communications professor.

Supporting Baylor's debate program are Joe and Barby Allbritton, who established the Glenn R. Capp chair of Forensics at Baylor in 1989. Joe Allbritton debated at Baylor and earned his bachelor's of legal letters degree in 1949, a doctor of legal letters in 1964 (honorary LLD) and a juris doctorate degree in 1969. In addition to endowing the chair, the Allbrittons funded the Glenn Capp Best Freshman Debate Award.

The scholarships and purposeful recruiting contribute to Baylor's reputation of debate excellence, which includes three national championships. The legacy survived the lean years of World War II and the Depression, which meant students left to serve their country or for financial reasons. Sometimes there was little money for the debate program.

Glenn Capp's legacy

Although many people are key to the well-heeled history of Baylor debate, almost every former student brings up the name "Prof." He was better known as Glenn Capp, the person for whom Baylor debate is named and who ran the program for 36 years. He also is the author of a book titled Excellence in Forensics/A Tradition at Baylor University, which details events from the start of the program through 1985.

When Capp agreed to take on debate duties in 1934, he thought it was a temporary job he'd do while attending Baylor law school. Nevertheless, he stayed with it until 1970, when Lee R. Polk took over. Capp is largely responsible for the way debate at Baylor looks and feels today.

"He was the driving force," says Karla Leeper, chief of staff to Baylor President John M. Lilley and former director of the program. "Prof was nationally prominent, and is responsible for much of the alumni support we have today."

Capp encouraged both racial and gender integration of debate, Leeper notes, and his book retells the story of the time that a "young lady appeared on the list of winners for the first time." The year was 1930-31, her name was Alice Gohlke, and she won first place in oratory at the regional Pi Kappa Delta Tournament. Six years later Capp organized a new division called "mixed," in which a male and a female debated together.

The 1956 Baylor College tournament made history as the first racially integrated debate tournament in the South. A young black student from Texas Southern University named Barbara Jordan won first place in the junior division in oratory and third place in extemporaneous speaking. Jordan served in the Texas Senate from 1967 to 1972 and then was elected in 1972 as Texas' first black representative to the U.S. House. Although students today would think her win "no big deal," writes Capp in his 1986 book, "it was [a big deal] then, supported by clippings of editorials criticizing us and copies of irate letters in my files....'" Leeper describes Capp as a fierce advocate of free speech and public debate of issues. "He mesmerized students even as an emeritus professor," she says of the late debate wizard.

Connecting generations

Leeper herself traveled an interesting oratorical route. Her long journey began when she was a high school sophomore at Des Moines East in Iowa. A boy who sat in front of her in chemistry class - a rival - started going to debate tournaments and returning with trophies.

Well, thought Leeper, if he could do it, so could she. In the middle of the year, she asked the coach if she could join, and in the second semester of her sophomore year, she began going to tournaments. An English teacher urged her on.

When the time for college came, Leeper earned a scholarship to the University of Iowa. She liked the coaches and the young debate program. And though she found the college campus of 25,000 students a bit overwhelming, she discovered a ready-made group of friends. "When you get to campus (as a debater), you have an affinity group already."

After getting her bachelor's degree, she decided on law school at the University of Texas. This is when her familiarity with Baylor's debate program grew while she spent time with friends in Waco and worked with the summer debate program.

After two years in law school, she decided it wasn't for her. She went to the University of Kansas, where she was assistant coach of the debate team of 40 students. But even while living in Kansas, she worked for Baylor for two weeks each summer at its Summer Debate Workshop for high school students, started in 1937.

Because Leeper was so well known at Baylor, it was natural for Lee Polk, then director of debate, to call her and offer her a job. "He said, 'You're a Baptist, you're a woman, you're good at what you do, and we have a job,' " Leeper says. She arrived at Baylor in 1992 and directed the debate program as department chair and faculty member in communication science until she became chief of staff to President Lilley in May 2006. Between Capp and Leeper were four other directors: Polk, Bill English, Robert Rowland and Richard Edwards.

Even now, Leeper stays involved in the program. "We value the development of our students. The alumni strongly support us and the administration recognizes the value of it," she says. A photograph of four graduates of her first class sits in the bookcase in her office. These and other former debate students return to Baylor every year as part of the Ex-Debaters Association. The group was organized at a homecoming breakfast in 1951, and remains unique in that it has no officers, duties, dues or sponsored activities. In spite of its loose organization, it helps Baylor maintain a quality debate program, notes Capp in his book. That's the nature of debate, Leeper says. "People cross generations and connect. They have a similar, translatable set of experiences."

The theme of lifelong connections is repeated each year. Gerber, for example, has known Leeper for two decades, since he was a high school debater and she was a graduate assistant coach running the debate program at the University of Kansas. She brought him to Baylor to take over the debate program. "We hired him as my assistant," Leeper says. Then she phased out as department chair of communications studies and became chief of staff. She tries to be a source of advice, a mentor and a historian, as former debate directors Polk, Edwards and English did for her.

Intense preparation

To prepare for the September-through-March season, debaters arrive on campus in July when the national topic comes out. A college workshop runs concurrently with the high school workshop, Gerber says, and Baylor debate students attend that while teaching high school students.

Once they know the topic, Gerber and his students hit the library. They copy the evidence they need, research 'til bleary-eyed online, and start their practice debates. It's still July when practice starts. The Internet, a relatively recent innovation in debate, helps speed research.

A committee of coaches and students meet for a week in the summer to hammer out each year's topics. This year the question was whether the Supreme Court should overrule precedents relating to enemy combatants, abortion, school segregation and violence against women. Each team defends the affirmative and the negative, says Gerber, so that they get a chance to debate both sides.
"Students must be committed," he adds. Baylor debaters cut their winter break short by more than a week to prepare for January debates. They attend 10 to 12 tournaments a year. "We try not to go back to back so we don't miss too much class," Gerber notes.

Early debaters' style and format was much different from that of today. Then it was a spectator sport. "The style of speaking now is less oratorical and less formal," Gerber says. "We might read between 40 and 50 pieces of evidence." To get the evidence in during a debate requires fast speaking, much like that of an auctioneer. Earlier debaters, who appeared mostly in public, spoke more slowly to be understood. Today's debaters also host public events that are more oratorical than debate competition. These events focus on a general topic. But in competition, debaters are scored "more on what you say than how you say it," Tripe notes. "It's generally much more about content."

Spectators attending an annual public debate at Baylor might find the British National Debate Team squaring off with Baylor debaters over handgun control. Although Gerber claims his teams have been "skunked" in a public debate, Baylor won the student vote last year.

Anyone who remembers the infamous index cards from debates of yore should replace that image with laptops. Students compile their evidence in digital format and pack computers and lots of file folders to a tournament. Gerber's top debate team carries six plastic tubs to a tournament. They are filled with evidence organized "to the hilt," Gerber says.

Although the presence of Internet-connected laptops invites questions about cheating, Gerber notes that "there are extensive rules against end-round coaching" via computer. "Anyone who tried it would get the death penalty, which means they'd be kicked out of the debate and invited not to come back," he says.

Even with advances provided by technology, some things have not changed. Debaters learn to research, think and examine different sides of an issue. They sharpen their study habits and spend most of their time with other debaters. They lose their voices sometimes at a tournament and keep going anyway. The "soldiering on" mentality is the product of the deep, healthy roots that continue to support student growth and ultimately, successful professionals.

"Debate is the integration of our mission and our vision," Leeper says. "It's a very Baptist activity to teach students to think and tie that with a community sense of democratic practice. There is nothing more important than those civic education skills."