KU’s top duo a rarity at upper levels of college debate: a two-woman team

Melanie Campbell and Amanda Gress, back from last year’s National Debate Tournament, were flipping through a Facebook album with photos of all 78 teams that competed when they realized something strange.

Of all those 77 other two-person teams, not one had two women on it. Theirs was the only one.

Campbell, a senior from Lenexa, and Gress, a sophomore from Overland Park, aren’t unusual in some respects: They’re a team heading to the National Debate Tournament from Kansas University’s powerhouse debate program, which has sent at least one team to the competition for 46 straight years and won it five times. But there’s one way they’re a bit out of the ordinary: They’re two women succeeding at the highest level of intercollegiate debate, a field historically dominated by men.

Gress and Campbell are in Ogden, Utah, right now, back again for the NDT after qualifying for a second year.

First and foremost, they are two great debaters, KU head debate coach Scott Harris says. Campbell was named to the All-America team by the Cross Examination Debate Association, a national collegiate debate group. Campbell finished as the sixth-best individual speaker out of 280 at another national tournament in Idaho last week, and Gress finished 20th. Each one says they’re great friends, too, and they’ve won honors for their grades.

“They’re brilliant, hardworking and a lot of fun to work with,” Harris said.

And they’ve got enough on their minds right now without pondering college debate’s gender disparity.

At the NDT, they say, even the worst team there is tremendously talented and has spent countless hours poring over thousands of pages of research about U.S. energy production, the debate topic for this year set by the CEDA. Teams and coaches work virtually around the clock and pull out tactics they’ve been saving all year, and some debaters know this is the last time they’ll debate competitively in their lives.

At her first NDT last year, Gress said she learned that emotions run high. “I passed some kids in the hall who I didn’t know who were just bawling their eyes out,” Gress said, “because they were done with debate and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.”

Friday and Saturday, Campbell and Gress took part in three debates each day, each one lasting two and a half hours with about an hour of preparation time. After two more today, they’ll learn if they’re among 32 of the 78 teams to move on to a single-elimination bracket.

Between debating, listening for scheduled match-ups and reviewing journal articles with eyes gone blurry, the outside world can seem pretty far away, Gress said.

“You’ll look at your phone and realize that, like, 10 hours ago your mother texted you, and you probably should answer that,” Gress said.

But top-level tournaments are also when it becomes most clear that there are a lot more men than women doing this, Campbell and Gress said.

Studies have found the proportion of women in intercollegiate debate most years to range between 30 and 40 percent, Harris said. But at the NDT, it’s even more imbalanced: It’s more like 15 to 25 percent women. At this year’s tournament, Harris counted 34 women out of the 156 competitors, about 22 percent.

Teams of two women are even rarer. This year they account for four of the 78 teams, after Campbell and Gress were the only such duo last year.

“In a tournament, it’s very rare that Amanda and I will debate another female-female team,” Campbell said.

Both said, too, that women become even rarer as tournaments progress to the final rounds. The winner of the NDT’s top individual award each of the last two years, though, has been a woman.

The odd thing is that this is very different from how it was for Campbell and Gress when they were on their high school debate teams, they say. If the numbers were uneven, it wasn’t nearly as noticeable.

“As a freshman at your first tournament, walking around in the hallway, you’ll realize there are more men than women,” Gress said.

This isn’t the first time KU’s top team has been two women. Sara Apel and Melanie Wilson became the first team of two freshman women ever to qualify for the NDT in 2001. In all, seven of KU’s 24 debaters this year are women.

The exact reasons for this imbalance are unclear.

“I don’t think there’s any single factor that accounts for it,” Harris said.

Gress and Campbell have some ideas. College debate can feel intimidating to any young person, with its intense competition and hours upon hours of scouring libraries and the Internet for evidence to build arguments. Add in the fact that young women may look and see that most of the other debaters, coaches and even the judges who determine winners are men, and they might wonder if this is a place for them.

“It’s not that people are unfriendly, by any means,” Gress said. “It’s just that I think it can be a little bit overwhelming.”

Gress said she’s been lucky to have female teammates and coaches to serve as mentors since she joined the debate squad at St. Thomas Aquinas High School as a freshman. When she’s not researching, studying or traveling to one of about five tournaments each semester, she’s an assistant debate coach at Aquinas, and she hopes she can play the same role for female students there.

Mentoring is one way that college debate leaders around the country are trying to fight the gender discrepancy. An annual Women’s Debate Institute for high school girls from around the country aims to help them stay involved. Programs around the country, including KU’s, make sure to have women on their coaching staffs and push to recruit more female debaters out of high school. Some KU debate alumni are even working to create an endowment fund to provide scholarships for women debaters, Harris said.

“More needs to be done, but I think momentum is going in the right direction,” Campbell said.

This is important, Campbell says, because college debate is more than an outlet for highly competitive students to win medals and trophies. Yes, it is that, but it also teaches research skills, creates lifelong friendships and networking connections that can help down the line with careers or law school, and looks great on a resume.

Those are the parts of debate that women really deserve equal opportunities to get, she said.

“It’s unfortunate because debate is a great activity, and everyone should have access to it,” Campbell said.

These are the reasons that the issue has stayed on Gress’ and Campbell’s minds since they were struck by that Facebook photo album about a year ago. But you’ll have to forgive them if they’re not thinking about it right at this moment: They’re likely a bit busy forgoing sleep to dig up new arguments, with the full knowledge their opponents are doing the same, with a hope to advance to the elimination rounds for the first time in their NDT careers.

“It’s helpful to know that a week from today it’ll be over, one way or another,” Gress said as she steeled herself last week for the three- to four-day gauntlet.

But right now, it’s time to work.