COVID-19 and Local Circuits: Part III – Durable Funding During Cuts

Datum: Jun 10th, 2020
Category: International, Mittwochs-Feature

This article will address how debate programs can respond to current funding and support cuts by universities. The first part of this series profiled experiences of organizers, coaches, and debaters in different parts of the world. The second part of this series covered different approaches to virtual recruitment and outreach.

Will there be a fourth part? Probably not, debaters think in threes. If you have comments or want another COVID-19 piece, please email me at spruced [at] tuta [dot] io

I. Dollars for W’s Didn’t Work Before & Won’t Work Now

Most debate programs have historically appealed to their institutions through awards and selective representation at major events. For most programs, selling the narrative of competitive success and selectivity has become harder during COVID-19 due to: delays in the hosting of major internationals, including WUDC, EUDC, USUDC, Australs; and, increased restriction on travel or participation in tournaments / events for teams.

Exacerbating this, many clubs, especially those with less initial funding, already struggled to get the kinds of competitive acknowledgement to justify funding. To belabor a point self evident to many, competitive success is much easier to receive and document for programs with: a strong history of debate in their community and region, more established debate programs at their universities, access to debate in a competitive circuit with experienced judging, and the availability of training, coaching, or workshops.

However, awards and selections are not necessarily the only or best way to persuade universities that your program is worth funding, and success alone is insufficient to maintain a robust debate society. This article will attempt to address the ways universities make funding decisions and how debate programs can be more effective in appealing for financial or institutional support.

II. COVID-19 Budgetary Constraints and University Decisions

While weathering COVID-19 related academic cuts, the onus is on society leadership to make the case for why debate programs should receive continued funding. Many programs may face difficulties in defending funding to their institutions. This article will attempt to address some of the ways debate societies can be effective in sustaining financial and institutional support during academic cuts.

While debate programs have a variety of financial structures, many not supported by private donations and endowments rely on either: budgets allocated by student organizations, usually coming from student fees; or, budgets allocated from within the department a program is housed within.

To make a compelling case to university leadership requires an understanding of how universities make decisions about prioritizing and eliminating programs during financial downturns. In general, universities will evaluate three standards in making financial or program cuts:

  • The return on investment that a program provides (profit or impact of each dollar invested)
  • The redundancy of a program relative to other program offerings
  • The relevance that a program has to the mission and goals of a university.

Making the Case for ROI

In making the case for the return on investment debate offers universities, there are a few approaches:

  1. Demonstrate the direct financial return, if applicable, that the program yields for the university;
  2. Identify the measurable impacts that debate has on longterm professional and academic student achievement in existing impact assessment measurements used by the university (grades, graduation, employment, earnings)
  3. Justify impact assessment measurements and employ them to show other debate program dividends.

Demonstrating direct financial return:

  • Look to the programs and events that you typically host and draft a line item budget that demonstrates your costs and revenues, including: how much you charged for participants / audience; how much you raised through fundraising and private donations; how much you received through provision of services and products to consumers; how much projected revenue through high school student recruitment
  • Assess how much you lost or made on programs and events. Identify if there were outstanding profits returned to your university or carried over into subsequent fiscal years for your programs
  • Document the programs and activities that were cost-neutral – that you entirely self funded through these programs

Assessing debate impacts through existing impact measurements:

  • Gather data from your society’s current members and compare to current university rates
  • Gather data from past members of the society through reaching out to alumna / distributing a survey and comparing to historic university rates
  • if necessary, you can use existing research on debate programs in general. This is a less ideal solution because much of that research is (1) format specific; (2) specific to high school debate programs; and (3) heavily critiqued for being unreliable or biased by the types of students that self-select into debate programs / other changes within a school corresponding to the introduction of and engagement with debate programs. However, feel free to contact the author by email if your program is looking for available research on the relationship between debate and academic outcomes.

Developing impact assessment metrics and applying them:

  1. Identify the types of programs that your society mainly engages in and the types of outcomes you create. Some examples may include: hosting or participating in public debates or online workshops: number of audience members reached; hosting high school events or programs: university recruitment numbers if applicable, number of students participating and high school teachers trained; conducting or collaborating on research: number of publications and citations, other significance of data
  2. If possible, estimate the potential financial return of those impact metrics (eg: high school students recruited; grant funding for research; enrollment in paid programs you offer)
  3. If possible, isolate a comparative set of outcomes from other programs and departments relative to their costs (eg: amount of public events and online workshops; number of audience members typically reached at those events; numbers of students who participate in their programs; number of high school students engaged; level of media attention or circulation)

Demonstrating Uniqueness

Differentiating debate can be more difficult: many times, competitive debate programs can sound similar to public speaking programs, Model UN / Mock Trial / Ethics Bowl, and other competitive argumentation programs.


Some examples may include the following: public and impromptu speaking; broad and interdisciplinary research and topics; application and showcasing of existing university research in ways that improve accessibility to the public or expand interdepartmental initiatives; collaborations with specific institutions and programs (other debate / speech initiatives and other corollary institutions with an interest in collaborating with debate).


Some examples may include the following: engagement with global and regional institutions; existing private and public infrastructure your debate circuit interacts with; depth of networking; co-current programs (eg: womxn’s development programs).

Claiming a Mandate

University leadership has frequently relied on the line that it “cannot be all things to all people” in choosing which non-redundant programs to eliminate. Because of this, it isn’t sufficient for a program to be cost-efficient or distinct from other programs – debate must also demonstrate why it is congruent with or crucial to a university’s exercise of its mission mandate.

In approaching this, it may help to describe:

  • why your program provides something relevant or important to all students within the institution
  • why your program provides unique and irreplaceable benefits for a significant set of students
  • why your program represents the core values or missions of your institution

III. If it Doesn’t Pan Out: Program Preservation

Differential Effects of Cuts on Programs – Online Isn’t Enough

While the author sincerely hopes that these methods may be useful to some programs, they acknowledge that most programs will still experience cuts. For some teams, this will be marginal or may even be net positive given increasingly affordable online options and the reduced demands of travel.

For other programs, this will curtail scholarships, recruitment based on outreach, affordability of current training (through paid workshops, hired trainers and coaches, etc),  and access to resources required for even online access (eg: paying tournament fees, paying for platforms like Yaatly and tabbing software, Zoom upgrades, etc).

For the remainder of programs, this could mean the elimination of a debate program or club altogether.

Debating under Dissolution

However, there are support networks beyond universities and donors – programs should feel emboldened to adopt an open door policy on suggestions and collaborations with other institutions that might continue to give their debaters access to competitions and events. In addition, taking the initiative to reach out to existing regional and local debate networks can provide the opportunity to brainstorm other approaches for struggling programs. Some such options might include joint practices with another institution, sharing eligibility and team incorporation with another institution (for example: a sister institution, another institution within your university’s network), or seeking official institutional representation as an umbrella organization / society rather than an individual university.


Mittwochs-Feature: The Mittwochs-Feature (Wednesday-Feature) features an idea, interview or book regarding debate – usually in German, sometimes in English, sometimes both. If you would like to start a debate please mail us your idea to team@ .

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