Talking Trophies

KU Debate celebrates 150 years

Their success begins on Jayhawk Boulevard, more specifically in an inauspicious warren of rooms in the sub-basement of Bailey Hall. Dozens of banners on the walls attest to KU Debate’s achievements, as do trophies and pictures of teams past. An upstairs hallway showcases more trophies, the oldest dating back to 1954 — all demonstrating the university’s winning tradition of debate.

Currently, KU Debate ranks among the nation’s top five debate teams and is first among public universities in National Debate Tournament (NDT) appearances. For 49 consecutive years, team members have qualified for the NDT. Three times in the last decade — in 2015, 2008 and 2006 — the team took first place in the NDT varsity rankings. KU debaters have competed in five NDT championships and 15 final fours.  

Accolades for 2016 include qualifying three teams for the NDT, one of which finished as the national runner-up, and placing first in the Junior Division National Championship. This past fall, the team brought home three first-place trophies from three major tournaments. It’s a dizzying list of accomplishments from a team that receives few external rewards.

KU Debate welcomes all students — there are no tryouts. “Debate is something that you do because you like doing it,” Scott Harris, Ph.D., the David B. Pittaway Director of Debate, said at a recent team meeting. “I want the culture and experience of debate to be fun for you. We want all of you to succeed in debate, and we are willing to do whatever it is that helps make you be the best debaters that you can be.”

Harris said that despite the team’s limited budget, if students work hard, and if they are demonstrating success at tournaments and consistently reaching elimination rounds, he will make sure they have opportunities to travel to compete.

As with all KU programs, to recruit and retain top participants, debate requires not only an excellent program with strong faculty and coaching, but also scholarship support. The limited availability of scholarships makes it difficult to compete against peer universities that offer more and larger debate scholarships. 

“Thanks to some of our generous alumni who have made valuable contributions in support of our program, we have the ability to offer small scholarship stipends to debaters,” Harris said. “Expanding the scholarships we can offer is vital to helping us attract diverse and talented students to KU.”

Former KU Debate champion J. Mark Gidley ’83, and his wife, Bridget Gidley, are generous supporters of the debate program. Included in their gifts are two endowed funds: one for recruitment, retention and support of assistant coaches; the other is a scholarship for students demonstrating excellence in policy debate or speech. 

“With 2017 being the 150th anniversary of KU Debate, it is a privilege for alumni to keep KU Debate going and growing for future generations,” Mark Gidley said. “KU Debate is renowned nationally for its ‘big-tent excellence’ — being able to travel a large squad of debaters, as well as for its excellence against the best schools in the nation.”

Since it was established in 2002, the Gidley scholarship has benefited 33 students, one of whom is junior Quaram Robinson, a first-generation college student from Round Rock, Texas. For her, scholarship support made a KU education possible. “Getting a debate scholarship was important, and it’s definitely what helps me cover my tuition and allows me to focus on debate,” she said. 

At KU, Robinson hit the ground running. As a freshman debater, she was a first-round, at-large qualifier for the NDT. The other qualifier was then-senior Jyleesa Hampton. 

With this achievement, Robinson was only the second first-year KU debater to become a first-round NDT qualifier. She and Hampton were the 36th KU team to be recognized as first-round automatic qualifiers to the NDT, and they were the first such KU team of two African-American women. Since then, Robinson has garnered additional wins, including a 2016 national second-place finish with then-freshman Sion Bell, losing in the championship round to Harvard University. 

KU Debate president Christopher Birzer, a senior with four year’s experience as a Jayhawk debater, said the team is unique, in part because there’s not a lot of scholarship support. “What distinguishes KU, apart from the fact that we are arguably the best public institution for debate in the nation, is that we have a bunch of people who are here because they really love debate and who also really care about each other.”

Trophies are a testament to the storied history of KU Debate. Team members spend about 20 hours a week preparing for competitions, and even more time when they travel. Scholarship support helps students cover tuition and expenses so they can focus on debate and schoolwork.Earl Richardson

Inspiring debate team members every day with Scott Harris are Brett Bricker, Ph.D., associate director of debate, and 10 graduate students who are assistant debate coaches. The directors and assistant coaches all are accomplished former college debaters themselves.

Along with research, teamwork and public speaking, debate teaches critical-thinking skills that students say are invaluable for classes and careers. Key to this success is the continual flow of evaluations from teammates, coaches and judges. Not all of the critiques are flattering.

“A huge component of debate is learning how to take criticism and growing from it,” Robinson said. “I think that is debate’s strongest suit.”

This year, Jyleesa Hampton is a KU assistant debate coach. After five years as a champion KU debater and now a graduate student, she is proud of the team’s tradition of success. She also appreciates its low-lying corner of Bailey Hall. Hampton gestured toward the championship banners.

“I can see on the walls all of the names of past great KU debaters who have not only represented our team’s legacy, but who also represented the university and our academic ideas very well,” Hampton said. “It feels very much like a living tradition — it feels like home.”


DEBATE IS ONE OF THE OLDEST ACTIVITIES AT KU. The first KU debate was held on Nov. 8, 1867.


  • Five National Debate Tournament (NDT) championships
  • 15 NDT final fours
  • 49 consecutive years qualifying for the NDT
  • #1 in NDT varsity rankings in 2015, 2008 and 2006
  • Seven final fours in the Cross Examination Debate Association national championship tournament since 1998
  • First among public universities in NDT appearances


  • National runner-up at the NDT
  • Won the Junior Division National Championship
  • Qualified three teams for the NDT
  • Finished fifth in the NDT Varsity Debate Rankings


To support KU Debate and be a part of their winning tradition, contact LaRisa Chambers at 785-832-7471 or