The Traditions of Oratorical Competition at The State University of Montana, 1898-2000
by Amanda Watson
"I knew a lot of people at UM had debated in high school. I knew the interest was here, that there were a lot of people similar to myself who liked to debate. I did some work trying to recruit students. Failure was not an option," said Ryan Morton, a student at the University of Montana who pushed for the revival of a speech and debate team last year (Jarig, 2000). And as failure was "not an option," fail he did not. Morton teamed up with Alan Sillars, Chair of the Department of Communication Studies, and Kim Flansburg, a graduate student in that same program. With support from the Davidson Honors College, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, and other offices around campus, they were able to piece together the resources to get the program off the ground. Of the new forensics team, Sillars said, "I felt all along that this was something that was missing in our curriculum" (Jarig, 2000).
Although the current forensics team was recently formed, forensics is nothing unfamiliar to the campus of the University of Montana. In the same year as the school's founding, its first oratorical society was formed and an article in the January 1899 issue of the Kaiman stated that "within the next six weeks there will be formed an inter-collegiate Oratorical League." Participating in the state wide league were the State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts at Bozeman, the Wesleyan University at Helena, the College of Montana at Great Falls, and the Montana State University at Missoula. Each school held an oratorical contest and the winners represented their school in a state-wide contest. Efforts were also made to establish an inter-state association.
An annual oratorical event was held in conjunction with Aber Day celebrations. Named for a well liked professor who passed away in the early years of the State University of Montana, Aber Day was a day of campus togetherness. Students participated in a clean-up, a lunch, games, a dinner, and the speech contest. Before the actual competition, four preliminary rounds were held, and only the top six speakers qualified for the Aber Oratorical Competition. The winner went to the state contest and received a cash scholarship.
The league, however, was not an official one. It was not until 1914 that the Kaiman reported that "at last a debate club has been formed." The club called themselves the "Forensic Sharks Society." Their charter read that they wanted to "increase interest in debate and oratory" and "train students in the art of speaking." They also wanted to "aid the debate manager" (Kaiman, 1914). Public debates were conducted every two weeks to prepare students for competition. By this time, many regional universities had a forensics program of their own in place and the MSU debaters were able to participate in more tournaments. However, as they were not officially recognized, the debaters were still referred to as an "effected temporary organization."
All over the country, universities were establishing sororities and fraternities specifically for speech and debate clubs. Two of these were Kappa Tau Theta, a fraternity, and Pi Kappa Alpha, a sorority. Both of these societies allowed the membership of anyone interested and were segregated by gender. In 1929, the university at Missoula had both of these organizations in place but in May of this year they were presented with the opportunity to install a charter for the Delta Sigma Rho, an honor debate society. It allowed membership of both men and women but was more selective. It was required that a student must have achieved both "outstanding performance" in two or more inter-collegiate debates and the completion of all public speaking courses available. Only four or five members were inducted each year.
At the same time, a "Debate Union" was formed at the State University, to which all interested students could belong. Coach Darryl R. Parker told the Kaiman that its "practical aim" was to "provide definite facilities for giving those interested in debate intensive practical training." He continued by saying that several years have elapsed since any attempt have been made to organize such a union, and the State University is greatly in need of such an organization," (Kaiman, 1932). Meetings were to be held once a week, and would be conducted along "open parliamentary lines." Each meeting would be followed by a prepared debate. The student manager of the Union was also the manager of the MSU debate affairs. All forensics trips and schedules were taken care of by the Debate Union. Right away the team was presented with proposals for exhibition debates with Brigham Young University, the Universities of Washington, Pittsburg, New Zealand, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and Australia's Canterbury College. Of the Debate Union, Parker said that "no matter how inexperienced [a student may be] he has the opportunity to get practical experience in debate." He told the Kaiman that there "is great interest" in this program.
Although there were many students involved in debate and the University of Montana received membership in Delta Sigma Rho, the programs had trouble. In a 1932 letter to President Harry L. Ewbank, Coach Parker of the English Department (where the Speech program was then housed) expressed the desire for a second attempt to establish a local chapter of Delta Sigma Rho. He told of the previous attempt, in 1929, and the reasons for its failure. The main problem, he wrote, was the fifteen dollar initiation fee and the $2.50 that went into the travelling fund. So, in 1929 there was only one paid member, thus a lack of support. But Ewbank assured Parker that "the time is good" and that, "Funds will be available for representation at the national convention" (Kaiman, 1929).
With the second charter of Delta Sigma Rho at the University of Montana, the debate team began to flourish. Many of the region's colleges and universities had well grounded programs and the schools in Montana were no different. The State University at Missoula became well respected at tournaments and had much success. In 1955 the Speech program was doing so well that they were able to separate from the English Department and become their own department.
The Debate and Oratory Association at the University was highly involved with community affairs and with high school debate programs. For instance, the University of Montana would visit the state's high schools each year and hold workshops called "Speech Institutes." At these institutes, practice rounds were held and high school students were able to be critiqued by university students. There were also lectures by instructors, and an open forum session regarding debate league problems. The Debate and Oratory Association was also able to recruit future team members to the university.
The University team distributed to Montana's high schools two publications, the Montana Debate Bulletin and the Montana Speech Bulletin. Issues were put out six times during the regular school year. These publications maintained links between the schools, informed teams of changes in policy, reported state-wide statistics, and suggested topic ideas to students. In 1962 the national tournament for high school forensics programs was held on the campus of the University of Montana and was host to fifteen hundred students from around the country.
Locally the team did many things with the community. In addition to the public debates and demonstration debates held each week, the debate team participated in radio debates broadcast in Missoula and Great Falls. The students put on shows for the public. In 1956 the Speech Department presented "Spoon River Resurrection," a sequel to Edgar Lee Master's "Spoon River Anthology." In 1959, the team participated as narrators in a reenactment of Salish Stories.
The team also held "Thursday Noon Luncheons" in a room above the cafeteria. Students and staff were encouraged to bring their lunch trays with them and eat while listening to demonstrations of debates, speeches, and choral readings. The audience was also treated weekly to a guest speaker. On October 13, 1955 for instance, Dr. Seedorf of the English Department gave "some interesting answers to interesting questions" about her trip to Europe. Admission was free.
It was under the direction of coach Ralph McGinnis that the forensics team at the University of Montana was able to accomplish all of these functions for the state's schools and the community. Under McGinnis the team enjoyed resounding success. But great programs cost money, and as early as the first try for Delta Sigma Rho's establishment, financial issues were crucial. In a 1950 statement against a proposed budget cut, coach McGinnis wrote that in years past students were "constantly providing out of their own pockets over half of all costs for meals on trips" (President's Archival Collection). The burden of a student paying for their participation on such a team, on top of tuition and living costs, seriously limited those who could compete. The proposed cut in 1950 also meant that the University would have been unable to compete in the Western Speech Association's tournament, the Rocky Mountain Speech Tournament, and would eliminate Missoula's own tournament, which was to be the large Northwest Tau Kappa Alpha Tournament. McGinnis also emphasized Montana's large high school forensics programs and the tendency of students to seek out of state alternatives for better opportunities to compete.
Finances continued to be an obstacle for the debate team at the University of Montana despite their high esteem both throughout the forensics community and on campus. In November of 1981 The Kaiman reported that the Central Board slashed funding to the Debate Team and it was "now dying a slow death." University of Montana debaters were unable to host the Big Sky Tournament because of their lack of participation at other meets. Jim Polsin was quoted as saying "no one comes to your tournament if you don't go to theirs." The Kaiman reported that the team's annual budget for 1981 was $3,200. They received three thousand dollars from grants from the Administration of the University, and only two hundred from the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM). ASUM's budget allotment for the team in 1980 had been $4000.
The University of Montana team was only able to compete in two meets for the entire season in 1981, whereas in 1975, they went to eleven. The reasons for this substantial slash in funding came from a dispute in funding. One former team member accused the forensics squad of fraud (Kaiman, 1981a). A sub-committee investigation subsequently found the team to be sound but before the Central Board heard their report, "seven or eight people had decided to zero the team out," according to Marquette McRae-Zook (Kaiman, 1981a). She also referred to the committee a "bunch of sour grapes."
Sam Newburn quoted Jim Polsin as saying that that the real problem is not funding, but "rather it is that ASUM is not consistent with funding procedures" (Kaiman 1981b). Newburn went on to say that in school year 1980-1981 Shellen didn't even receive current instructions for the budget application. "ASUM didn't even publish the criterion for funding" (Kaiman, 1981b). Shellen proceeded to say that "unless there's some consistency...from ASUM there's no way [the team can survive]."
So, with inconsistency and sour grapes, the Debate and Oratory Association of the University of Montana, begun in 1898, drifted into a bankrupt oblivion. As of 1982, they ceased to exist. In 1986, however, Wes Shellen was able to persuade the Dean of Arts and Sciences that "there were about a thousand high school debaters in Montana and we were missing the boat trying to recruit them" (Shellen, personal communication). So Shellen, as Department Chair of Communication, was given a small budget and a recent M.A. graduate, Vicki Groskinski, as a coach. The team went to a few tournaments with "a good little squad" of CEDA debaters (Cross Examination Debate Association). However, at the end of the year a request for continued funding was denied. Until Ryan Morton appeared on the campus of the University of Montana, the team was not heard from again.
"We were competing against team that have been doing this for several years," said Alan Sillars in the March 13, 2000 edition of the Missoulian (Jarig, 2000). He went on to say that his team really were all novices and that "we had only four weeks to get up to speed." All in all the seedling team made a good showing for the University, with six awards to their nineteen students. Kim Flansburg, coach of the fledgling group said "Personally speaking, I probably gained more from debate than any other class I could have taken. It forces you to think on your feet. Sometimes students don't get that in classes."
A program such as forensics is greatly beneficial to all who are a part of it. The experience helps students to become more confident and intelligent speakers and writers. Students learn to care about their social and political communities. Above all, competitors learn to be best friends with their enemies.
Called by the 1961 yearbook The Sentinel, "one of the oldest organizations at the University of Montana," the Forensics Team has finally returned and has a promising future. "It is always great to see old programs such as the team from the University of Montana come back, because of the traditions that they can help us to remember," said a coach of the award winning Carroll College Forensics Team. Indeed, within the family structure of debate teams, everyone learns from each other, nurtures essential life skills, and they create long lasting bonds. Oratory and debate are a tradition that is one hundred years strong, and its importance is great enough to extend that tradition for centuries more.
Central Board slashes budget. (November 18, 1981). Kaiman.
Delta Sigma Rho Society. (May 24, 1929). Kaiman.
Forensic Sharks organize society. (October, 1914). Kaiman.
Jarig, G. Back in order. (March 13, 2000). Missoulian.
Oratorical society formed. (January, 1898). Kaiman.
Pi Kappa Delta install chapter. (November 11, 1932). Kaiman.
Polsin, J. (August 19, 2000). Personal communication.
President's Collection, archival boxes 20, Debate and speech activities through 1954, 40, Speech - general, 70, Speech, 91, Debate and speech activities through 1955. Mansfield Library, University of Montana.
Shellen, W. (August 17, 2000). Personal communication.
The Sentinel. (1961). University of Montana, Missoula.