TU investigating forensics team, coach
University administrators are currently investigating accusations levied by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle involving the Towson University Forensics Team, which is ranked in the top 20 teams in the country.
Over the summer, the University removed Head Debate Coach Stephen Davis from his position after members of the debate team met with the president’s office to address allegations of verbal abuse, as first published by LBS.
In a Towerlight interview, Co-captain of the debate team Ameena Ruffin said Davis verbally abused members of the team, personally insulting individual members and their debating skills and often losing his temper under pressure.
During one trip, Ruffin said, Davis threw a 25-pound storage container at her debate partner.
“There were no set limitations on what he could and couldn’t do,” Ruffin said. “There were no checks.”
Davis declined to comment for this story.
Under Davis, the team was successful at a number of competitions. At the National Debate Tournament in April, the team finished in the top 16 teams. In January, Ruffin finished as the top speaker at a tournament at the University of Texas-Dallas, and last October, the team won the 44th Annual West Point Debate Tournament.
At the end of the spring semester, Ruffin said, she and the other members of the team approached Jennifer Potter, the head of the Towson University Forensics program. Ruffin said that Potter, who is also Davis’s wife, declined to act.
Ruffin added that Potter threatened the team with a loss of scholarships and a loss of travel permission if they continued to bring up complaints about Davis’s behavior.
Potter could not be reached for comment.
Ruffin said members of the team then contacted Cynthia Cooper, chair of the communications department at Towson, and the Provost’s office, but received no clear answers.
In an email to The Towerlight, Cooper said the “…University is working to resolve this academic issue.”
The team also met with Victor Collins, the assistant vice president for student diversity.
Collins set up a meeting with the president’s office between the debate team and Assistant to the President for Diversity and Equal Opportunity Debbie Seeberger and Fair Practices Officer Dan Leonard.
Leonard and Seeberger informed the team that Davis and Potter would both be removed from their positions, according to Ruffin.
While Davis was dismissed and Potter’s office was moved out of the debate team’s room, Potter still has control over the group’s budget, team Co-captain Kevin Whitley said.
In a statement released by the University, Provost Timothy Chandler said, “We appreciate the concerns that have been expressed regarding the forensics program’s speech and debate team. We are proud of this academic program’s success, which has enabled the team to become one of the best in the country. The division of academic affairs is examining the concerns, taking into account the university’s policies and procedures, to ensure that all parties involved are being treated fairly and consistently.”
Director of Communications and Media Relations for the University Ray Feldmann emphasized that the situation is ongoing, and the University will continue to investigate the situation and will release more information as it becomes available.
Following Davis’s departure, the team decided to attend a tournament at Harvard University.
After being informed there was not enough money in the budget to attend the tournament, the team launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money.
After raising $3,200 of their $3,485 goal, Whitley said the team was informed by Potter that they still would not be attending the conference, and that she had withdrawn the team’s name from Harvard’s registration.
“We can’t afford to miss this tournament,” Ruffin said. “We took it into our hands to raise the money, and now we could lose our top 20 ranking.”
According to Ruffin, Potter said the team could not attend the conference because Towson has not traditionally sent all of its debaters to every conference.
Associate Vice President for Campus Life Teri Hall said that for the student groups she works with, which are the ones funded by the Student Government Association, any donations given to the student groups must be given through either the Towson University Foundation or the SGA Accounts Clerk office. Hall said, however, that the debate team may not have to operate under the same set of rules as those groups, because it is sponsored by an academic department.
“I’m not sure on an official policy for [the debate team],” Hall said. “But, for example, when sports groups raise money it goes through the foundation. There’s also a foundation account set up for Students Helping Honduras for when they receive donations.”
The foundation is usually used for larger sums of money, while SGA handles small fundraisers held by the groups, according to Hall.
Sherry Hall (no relation), a co-director of debate workshops at Harvard, posted on the “College Policy Debate Forum” and said that, “The Director of the [debate] program along with the Chair of the Communications Department at Towson wrote me on October 17 to say that the University had decided that the debaters could not travel to the Harvard tournament. They were dropped from the tournament by the Director, not by anyone at Harvard. It is my understanding that there is still some negotiation going on at the University. We are willing to see what the University position is regarding the travel.”
In Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle’s post, they demand that the team be allowed to attend Harvard’s tournament this weekend, and also demand that Potter and Cooper be fired.
LBS was previously associated with the University when its members attended Towson, including Dayvon Love, the author of LBS’s post on the debate team.
This is not the first time the debate team has encountered issues with the University.
Fernando Kirkman, a member of the debate team between 2008 and 2011 and current program manager of competitive debate at the Baltimore Urban Debate League said when his team tried to get additional funding for tournaments from the Provost’s office, they were told they could not attend the National Debate Tournament.
“We were also told that if we raised a fuss about it, we were also told we could not go to the Cross Examination Debate Association’s tournament,” Kirkman said. “I have debaters who want to debate at Towson asking me if they should debate at Towson, and I’m not sure what to tell them.”