Augustana's first debate team was founded on the third day of the college's existence in 1860 and has continued through present day. Debate has changed a lot over that period. The history of the program is best outlined by the three great eras of Augustana debate: The club era, the intercollegiate era and the tournament era.
Club Debating Era
Club debating dominated the first 40 years of the college's history. On-campus literary and discussion societies were formed and named after the era's great orators: Senator Daniel Webster, Prime Minister William Gladstone, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, Secretary of State Edward Everett. Life for these clubs was complicated by the college's Swedish heritage, as not all of the students spoke English. As a result, separate English and Swedish debate clubs were formed; they met on alternate weeks but shared a single set of record books. The wide-ranging interests of the students can be seen through a selection of topics that were debated in the late 19th Century:
And, during the slow season, they organized spelling bees.
The intercollegiate era represents the advent of competition against other schools. Augustana would, typically, sign a five-year contract with another Lutheran college. The contracts generally provided for a debate on Augustana's campus one year, a debate on the other campus in the following year, and so on. The first of these debates was against Luther College in 1904. Augustana's literary society challenged Luther's debate society to two debates, the first in Rock Island and another at Decorah in 1905. The subject of these first two debates is unknown, though the Augustana team's practice topics were "Altruism is more ethical than egoism" and "The Reformation has contributed more to Western civilization than has the Renaissance." Then, as now, debaters worried about incompetent or biased judges. An exchange of letters between Augustana's president and Luther's reflect the escalating demands. The first letters merely stipulated no graduate of Luther or Augustana could judge, the second exchange expanded this to exclude all residents of Rock Island or Decorah, and the final letters declared no Scandinavians. Nonetheless, The Observer reported that the "The Norwegian team" won by 2-1. Determined to teach them that their victory was a fluke, Augustana journeyed to Decorah in 1905, but lost 3-0.
That was not, generally, a great time for debaters. The 1905 team had a budget of $1.20 (with 95 cents of that unavailable because the debaters hadn't paid their dues). The Synod disapproved of intercollegiate debate and athletics because they rewarded aggressiveness, so both were ended around the turn of the century and the on-campus topics centered on the question of "when our rights will be returned." For better or worse, the students' rights to intercollegiate debate were returned in 1904, and they responded (by losing virtually every debate for the next twelve years). This was, ironically, the time when the "Augustana Victory Song" was dedicated "to those men and women who have fought so nobly for alma mater in forensics and in athletics." Augustana's one recorded win was over the undefeated team from Bethany College, which reacted to the loss very poorly. According to The Observer, the team members "did not behave in a civil manner" at the banquet (the fact that the win occasioned campus-wide celebrations, bonfires and the carrying of winning debaters around on students' shoulders may have contributed to their ill-spirits).
Starting around 1917, Augustana caught on to one of the secrets to its opponents' successes: They had coaches, and Augustana did not. So the college hired a coach. In the next decade, the team's record improved to 24 wins and 13 losses. The period's highlight was the undefeated 1922 team headed by Fritiof Fryxell, who went on to become one of Augustana's most revered faculty members. There are different reasons adduced for the team's remarkable improvement: Some attribute it to fine coaching, while others say that the tradition of awarding cash prizes for winning debates was the strongest inducement.
One of the great differences between debate in that era and now was the separation of men and women onto separate debate teams and into separate leagues. In 1925, for example, Augustana's women debated whether Congress should enact a uniform marriage and divorce law and won five of their six debates. In the same year, the men debated whether Prohibition should be repealed, compiled a 4-1 record and won the Illinois League championship.
Debate tournaments emerged as a by-product of the Great Depression. Colleges could not afford the expense of sending students hundreds of miles for the sake of one debate, but they could justify it if the students had four or five or six debates. Initially, each tournament had the option of selecting its own topic for debate. By way of illustration, in 1929, Augustana debated the proposition that "Modern advertising is more harmful than beneficial" (it was argued that General Motors truck ads focused more on pretty girls than on workmanship) and, in 1937, that the Federal budget should be balanced.
This era is associated with Martin J. Holcomb, Augustana's longest-serving and most successful director of debate. Holcomb coached the team from 1933 through 1969, except for the World War II years when he served in the U.S. Navy. Holcomb built the most successful small college team in the history of academic debate. His accomplishments included coaching over 500 debaters and having the first woman in the Final Round of the National Debate Tournament, the most first and second speaker awards, a national champion and another finalist team.
Now, as then, Augustana is an unusual debate program. While the school has four times as many students as when Holcomb first coached, it still is dwarfed in size by opponents. For example, at Baylor in 1994, the average size of Augustana's opponents was 13,000, the largest - at 37,000 - was the University of Texas (which Augustana beat), and the smallest opponents still were twice as large (Wake Forest, Dartmouth, Concordia College). Augustana, nonetheless, remains nationally competitive. In the 11 years leading up to 1996, the program won 1200 debates and nearly 100 speaker awards under then director David Snowball.
Augustana's success has continued through the turn of another century, led by Jeremy Bratt, who qualified for four consecutive National Debate Tournaments from 1997 to 2000. He is one of 10 Augustana students to have qualified for three or more NDTs. The college sent teams to nationals in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2005.
Augustana's debaters of distinction
(Based on performance at National Debate Tournament)
Years Augustana debaters qualified to National Debate Tournament