Editor's Note: This article is a response to "SCU Dempsey Cronin 2017: A Manifestation of Systemic Problems in Speech and Debate" by Mina Mohebbi.
Speech and debate is a home for many of us, and when home isn’t safe, it can feel like an extra layer of betrayal on top of the already sharp edge of the hurt. However, the SCU tournament staff, one of the most racially diverse and gender-balanced staffs in the country, would like to express its extreme distress that Ms. Mohebbi’s article was published in its current form and that the Dempsey-Cronin is being slapped haphazardly with charges of sexism and ableism that we take incredibly seriously.
We are the first to admit the SCU tournaments are imperfect. Over the past several years, we have worked hard to turn them into events we are proud to run, and we were excited this year to run two hours ahead of schedule on Sunday, successfully enlist campus safety’s help in removing genuinely problematic judges brought by schools from campus, and generally facilitate a tournament experience we hoped could be transparent, respectful, and fun. It would be too much to hope to succeed in every respect, but for most of the accusations against us in the article by Ms. Mohebbi, we cannot apologize.
As a staff, we have collectively agreed that airing of program-specific issues in a public forum is inappropriate, so if individual schools wish to speak to us directly regarding judging, equity, results, or any other topic of concern, they may contact us (see bottom of the article for contact information). We will address the rest of the concerns broadly, providing some detail where we believe it will not harm individuals or place information out of context.
The largest broad topic in the article is the question of judging, both in terms of “judge quality” or training levels and in terms of systemic harms such as sexism enforced by these judges. First, we will address the question of judge training/quality.
The article accuses us of not doing enough to train judges. Here are some of the safeguards our tournament had in place against judging inexperience:
- Prior to the event, we emailed all judges with event-specific judging instructions. These instructions were also posted to our tournament web page. Anyone can review these instructions, which we feel are succinct yet comprehensive in describing all of our offered events, at the bottom of the article.
- During the event, we had paper judging instructions available as well.
- Our Judge Room staff verbally reminded parents at multiple points during the tournament of appropriate judging practices in an effort to reach judges who might be single-day or even partial-day judges.
- Our Judge Room staff answered all judging questions that came to them during the tournament as time permitted.
- Outrounds were paneled, and panels contained at least one judge with several years of experience either debating or judging.
Additionally, judge training issues cannot be solved by tournaments alone. It is the responsibility of programs to train their judges prior to attending a tournament. Our materials are meant to supplement program-based judge instruction rather than replace it. Here are some of the practices we strongly recommend to teams to improve the quality of judges they send, and which we implement with our own teams:
- Hold a judge training night for your parents where you show them student demos and example flowing. You can also take this time to accustom them to the feel of Tabroom.com. For small schools, you may be able to ask a large school if you can send parents to their training nights.
- Make sure your judges know they will receive communication from Tabroom via email and text.
- Avoid partial-day judges when possible. It can take time to get into the debate mindset, so new judges in the middle of the day can disrupt the tournament flow.
- Encourage students to talk to their parents about what constitutes a good judge. Competitors are the best resources available to their parents!
- Ensure parents know they are not just judging for their student, but for the whole team. This helps prevent judge desertion when elimination rounds begin.
Ms. Mohebbi suggests that tournaments enforce these sorts of practices upon schools that enter their events. Our first reaction is, “How?” Even at a smaller tournament, there are few ways that tournament staff can acquire knowledge of what a school does or does not do with its judges. At an event like ours, with over 100 schools present, the logistics of such enforcement become impossible.
Next, we note that judge training, at the most extreme extent suggested in Ms. Mohebbi’s article, where we only allow judges who meet an arbitrary experience threshold to serve, becomes an issue of inclusion. New or small programs lack access to trained judges who meet the most common standards of experience. To those who would respond that they can always hire an experienced judge, we ask you to ponder this question: for programs who are not as well funded or programs who are just starting out, how would you ensure that they are able to obtain and financially support these hired experienced judges? Only well-resourced schools and families can afford the financial burden of a hired judge, and even then, there are a finite number of hires available. In many areas without strong university presences, that hired judge pool may not exist.
There are several tournaments that require entries to provide “qualified” judges or hire from the tournament— a judge pool where no parent judges are allowed. These tournaments tend to be very difficult to access for many of the programs we serve at SCU’s tournaments. We stand firmly for accessibility for small schools, new programs, and under-resourced families.
Finally, to transition to the issue of intrinsic bias in judges, “experienced” judges are not always better. First, norms differ between events. That means an “experienced” judge in parli may not seem so in duo interpretation. Second, the pool of judges available for hire tends to be overwhelmingly white and male. Defaulting to “experienced” judges does not support diversity goals. Third, we did remove two judges for problematic and threatening behavior to the debate community. One was the parent who made an unacceptable comment to Ms. Mohebbi. The other was a former debater and “experienced judge” who was also known to several female staff as a rapist. This expands on a larger issue of hired judges: some judges available for hire are known sexual predators and serial harassers, brought back year after year by programs who don’t know or don’t care about their hired judges’ character, as long as they are willing to judge for cheap.
As the reader may gather from our actions described above, we do our best to enforce a no-tolerance rule with regard to sexist behavior and any other behavior in violation of our anti-harassment policy. In less clear-cut cases, we have granted teams double–byes in an effort to reduce harms from implicit bias. In the case Ms. Mohebbi describes, the speaker points in the round were in line with the competitors’ averages (which would have been given in case of a bye), and Ms. Mohebbi’s team had already been marked the winner. A conversation with the judge revealed that the judge did not understand why their comments were problematic. We removed the offending judge from the pool and informed him that if he were found on campus again, he would be forcibly removed by Campus Safety. We regret Ms. Mohebbi had to have the disgusting, undermining experience of being targeted for her gender, and those of us who have had similar experiences empathize deeply. We continue to encourage reporting of these kinds of incidents, as it is the only way we can take action. Unfortunately, the staff did not have a stronger, more decisive action available than the one taken in this case.
We agree with the premise that sexism, ableism, and oppressive beliefs and systems are endemic to the debate community and that they do great harm. However, we disagree that the Dempsey-Cronin tournament is the root cause, or even particularly emblematic, of these issues. Our staff is dominated by women, who are major players in speech tab, debate tab, and the judging room. As stated previously, we enforce the strongest penalties available when sexism is reported to us. Our break percentages of women (estimated by coding first names in break lists, excluding gender-neutral and unknown names) were 40% of the open parli field in doubles and 60% of the novice parli field in octofinals. The novice parli final was a match between two girl/girl teams. We stand with students and coaches who say that more needs to be done, but we strongly believe Ms. Mohebbi attacks the wrong target.
We are divided in our response as to the handling of the Round 6 Open topic about the Goldwater Rule. For transparency, here is the process we followed for topic writing, which generated the topic in question:
- Topic areas are brainstormed by current debaters and team alumni. This is a group of 15-20 people.
- Specific topic wording is finessed by three to five people.
- Topics are read over by at least one person not involved in the initial writing of the topics plus all people working on topic wording.
It is worth noting that two of the people involved in the last two steps have diagnosed mental illnesses. No one had a major issue with the topic at any of these junctures. If they had, the topic would not have made it into the tournament. We do apologize for the problems with the wording of the topic upon release, which meant that the topic lacked a viable actor, and we worked to correct this issue as soon as we realized. However, due to time constraints, we did not find it appropriate to release a completely new topic at that time. When examining the topics after the tournament, we found that under this particular topic, judges voted for the affirmative 46% of the time. This falls within the tournament average, which was 48+/-2% (mean plus or minus standard error of the mean) over preliminary rounds in open and novice.
After reading student reactions, our staff falls into two camps. One camp still holds that the topic was reasonable and there are a wealth of non-ableist arguments available to the affirmative (see Ghaemi 2017 for some limited examples). The other believes that the topic should not have passed scrutiny, and in this case, the system failed. Our takeaway is that this issue is worth discussing, and that reasonable people can disagree on complex issues. As our staff is in disagreement, we will not discuss the details of the allegations against the topic but may choose to publish separate articles on that subject at a later point.
Ms. Mohebbi also addresses some tournament mechanics she finds objectionable, particularly break percentages and the use of speaker points as tie-breakers. We agree speaker points have been shown to be traditionally male-biased, but we maintain that this is a much larger debate than any that might be had merely over our tournament. She offers no specific evidence that our tournament is a particular offender in this regard, and a quick examination of the top speaker lists provides little to this end.
On our end, we worked to assist parents in properly assigning speaker points. We publish a speaker point scale on both the ballots and the judging instructions that encourages judges to use the 0.1 increments and evaluate speeches averaging around 27.5. Our post-tournament statistics indicate that this worked in narrowing the band of speaker points to drastically reduce the standard deviation of points compared to other tournaments. Our averages ranged between 27.5 and 27.8 in our novice divisions and between 28.1 and 28.3 in our open divisions. These are very positive statistics for a judge pool primarily comprised of non-experts.
We also think there is no use in asking for tab policy changes after a tournament occurs. If anything, Ms. Mohebbi and those sympathetic to this argument should to go organizations like the National Parliamentary Debate League (formerly Point of Information Foundation) or local leagues to try to change tabbing standards there. Further, there is a larger national discussion among debate organizations like the National Debate Coaches’ Association about critically reevaluating tournament tiebreakers (discussed here). These kinds of groups have legislatures which vote on tournament procedures and norms, and concerned groups should leverage their democratic powers where they are able rather than hurling accusations.
With regard to break percentages in the open division, we specifically abided by the National Parliamentary Debate League’s guidelines for appropriate break percentages when deciding the number of people we could allow into the tournament with the expectation of running a double octofinal. In novice, we chose to give more people the chance to compete in preliminary rounds, rather than enforcing the caps that would have made an octofinal seem more “fair.”
Unfortunately, due to a lack of judges available for outrounds, we were barely able to run the elimination brackets we have currently. As one tournament staffer remarked, “After we sent out the evening break round, there was nobody left in the room. There wasn’t even one of us left for the help line.” Many school judges do not seem to understand that they cannot leave immediately after their own child is done with competition, and it is ultimately incumbent upon schools to fulfill their judging obligations so that the tournament can feel confident about offering additional break rounds. If competitors want novice divisions to break to a double octofinal, the largest break the schedule can allow, then they must ensure that their team’s judges show up for their full obligation, not just preliminary debates. If competitors want break percentages to be higher, then they must reconcile themselves to the strict enforcement of caps.
This letter has sparked major discussion among top-level staff members about the kind of tournament we want the Dempsey-Cronin to be. It has long been tournament policy that accessibility should be maximized, whatever the cost. Named for two giants in the debate community’s past, Father James Dempsey and Mr. Martin Cronin, we have strived to emulate their values of supporting young programs and making the community open to as many students as wanted to join it. To that end, we let in as many students as we could, despite initial caps, in the hope of giving as more students the ability to experience an activity we all love.
The tournament could stick to its caps, despite the pleading of students and finagling of coaches. The tournament could be an exclusive Bay Area Tournament of Champions warm-up for Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum. The tournament could require all judges meet an experience threshold and price out those teams without the resources to hire. We choose, instead, for this tournament to strive to honor the devotion to speech and debate championed by Father Dempsey and Mr. Cronin. We choose parent judges and multi-round rooms, for all the troubles those bring, because we want more students to have the opportunity, whether they are newbies going to their first tournament or veterans seeking points and glory, to know this activity as we do. For even in its imperfections, which we promise to improve tournament after tournament, we believe that this is the better path for students to take in regards to creating and maintaining an inclusive debate community.
Sam Burns, Undergraduate Staff
Mariel Cruz, Tournament Director
Cooper Dauer, Undergraduate Staff
Kleya Dhenin, Undergraduate Staff
Julie Herman, Judging Staff
Steven Herman, Undergraduate Staff
Leo Kim, Undergraduate Staff
Jeff V. Ramdass, Tab Staff
Sarah Sherwood, Tab Staff
Teja Vepa, Tab Director
OPEN PRELIM TOPICS PERCENT AFFIRMATIVE WINS*
*Statistics exclude byes and forfeits
- The USFG should mandate that infrastructure projects receiving federal funding develop and implement plans for fully funding and performing maintenance throughout the service life. (55%)
- The USFG should substantially increase restrictions on horseshoe crab harvesting. (47%)
- SCOTUS should rule broadly in favor of Carpenter in Carpenter v. United States that warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records violates the fourth amendment. (51%)
- The USFG should switch to a national blockchain-based currency by 2025. (47%)
- The USFG should eliminate all United States military support for the war in Yemen. (42%)
- The American Psychiatric Association should eliminate the Goldwater rule. (46%)
NOVICE PRELIM TOPICS PERCENT AFFIRMATIVE WINS*
*Statistics exclude byes and forfeits
- The USFG should increase investment towards developing offensive cyber weapons. (48%)
- The USFG should terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. (40%)
- The USFG should implement Ranked-Choice Voting. (40%)
- The USFG should implement a significant carbon tax. (60%)
- SCOTUS should rule narrowly in favor of Whitford in Gill v. Whitford that Wisconsin's redistricting violated the fourteenth amendment. (52%)
PARLI BREAKS GENDER STATISTICS**
**These numbers include only clearly identifiable names and exclude some instances of known gender neutral names or names the staff was unable to code as either of the two most common genders. The number of names excluded is listed in parentheses.
OPEN — PERCENT WOMEN
- Doubles: 40% (-9)
- Octos: 22% (-5)
- Quarter: 15% (-3)
- Semi: 17% (-2)
- Final: 25%
NOVICE — PERCENT WOMEN
- Octo: 60% (-2)
- Quarter: 73% (-1)
- Semi: 100% (-1)
- Final: 100%