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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Madison May Lose Karl Mundt Debate Tournament, Proud Tradition

I was involved in several arguments yesterday. Permit me to summarize a few of them:
  • Developing wind power on Indian reservations is key to fighting global warming and water shortages, but how can we do it without massive improvements in our electrical grid?
  • We can't increase the use of solar power, because demand for silver and silicon is already too high, and we'd need enormous quantities of silicon to build superconducting transmission systems to efficiently carry electricity from desert solar farms.
  • A big shift to alternative energy will drive down oil prices and wreck the Russian economy, and that's a recipe for another Russian civil war and loose nukes.
Funny thing is, I wasn't doing the arguing. All of these heady contentions, rigorously backed with evidence from dozens of sources, came from teenagers, high school students, giving up the first of many Saturdays this year to participate in a debate tournament.

The Sioux Falls Roosevelt Rough Rider Debate Invitational is the traditional opening of the high school debate season in South Dakota. Hundreds of South Dakota students will argue their way through ten more regular season weekend contests, the last of which is the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament hosted right here in Madison. Mundt, as we veterans of the contest call it, traditionally draws every debate team in the state to Madison High School and the DSU campus on the chilly second weekend of February. Mundt is the last contest for novice and junior varsity debaters. Some schools treat Mundt as the unofficial state championship for the novice debaters. The varsity debaters relish Mundt as their last chance to sharpen their cases and scout out the competition before the big National-qualifying and State tournaments that follow.

Mundt is a big deal, not only for debaters and coaches, but for the Karl E. Mundt Foundation, based here in Madison. Most readers will recognize Senator Mundt as a five-term Congressman and four-term Senator for South Dakota. But before his service to South Dakota in Washington, Karl Mundt was Madison High School debater. He went on to (among other things) coach debate here at Eastern Normal (now DSU). Karl Mundt the educator helped start the National Forensic League, the national honor society for speech activities, and served as NFL President for 40 years.

To honor Senator Mundt's contributions to speech and education in South Dakota, the Mundt Foundation sponsors the Mundt Debate Tournament. Madison High School has proudly hosted Mundt for four decades, with assistance from DSU.

But now Madison High School wants to withdraw from that proud tradition. Madison High School debate coach Renee Nills recently sent an e-mail to South Dakota's debate coaches announcing that this will be the last year that Madison High School opens its doors to the hundreds of students who compete at Mundt each year.

I've been proudly involved with Mundt for most of the last twenty years. I won a Mundt trophy in humor my senior year (after a final round in Doc Miller's classroom). I helped coaches Ken Larson, Trudi Nelson, and Erik Johnson run Mundt for several years before running it myself for two seasons. I brought Montrose debaters to compete at Mundt for five seasons. If I'm in town in February, I'm at Mundt.

Mundt is a proud Madison tradition, a proud Madison High School tradition. It's a feather in our community cap to play host to teams from the biggest schools in the state—Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, etc.—for their last regular season contest. It's a great way for Madison High School and the Bulldog debate team to honor one of our most famous and successful alumni.

Why on earth would Madison High School not want to host this prestigious event?

Whatever the reasons, if Madison High School withdraws its support for this event, Mundt may end. There is discussion about DSU taking over the tournament to keep Mundt in Madison. However, having directed the Mundt Debate Tournament at MHS as well as the Mundt/Dakota Invitational Interp Contest at DSU, I worry that DSU may not have sufficient facilities to host the debate contest. The Mundt Debate Tournament uses nearly 60 rooms on Friday afternoon and over 80 rooms at MHS and DSU Friday evening and Saturday. For DSU's October interp contest, we can just barely find 60 contest spaces on campus... and that's only on Saturday, after classes are done and the campus has mostly cleared out.

Without support from MHS, DSU could host some sort of debate contest in February, but it would likely be a scaled-down version of Mundt. And at the end of the season, coaches don't want a scaled-down tournament. Coaches want all of their kids to have the chance to compete and learn at the last invitational contest of the season. If they can't get that opportunity in Madison, they'll take their teams elsewhere. The Mundt Tournament will collapse, and Madison and the Mundt Foundation will lose out.

When I wasn't being bombarded with great arguments and oratory from kids at Rough Rider yesterday, I chatted with a couple coaches about Mundt. One coach told me that when he got Coach Nills's e-mail, he went straight to his administration and asked if they'd be interested in hosting. The response: Absolutely. Show off the school, bring folks to town—"We'd be proud to."

We'd be proud to. That's exactly the response Madison High School should be giving. We should be proud to honor Senator Mundt, a favorite son, by hosting a grand debate tournament. Senator Mundt would be proud to see South Dakota's best and brightest young people coming to Madison every year to display the brilliant rhetorical skills that Mundt himself learned and taught right here in our community.

The Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament belongs in Madison, at Madison High School. It is a fitting tribute to a favorite son. Friends of Senator Mundt, alumni of MHS and Bulldog Debate, parents, businesses, and community boosters should work together to keep this proud tradition in Madison.

[photos courtesy Mundt Archives, Karl E. Mundt Foundation]


  1. Is Renee Nills the issue, is hosting overwhelming, or is it Sharon Knowlton not wanting to shut down MHS for a day to host Mundt? Now may be the time to call in the City and LAIC as supporters since the exposure to hundreds of out-of-towners for the debate tournament is great economic development for Madison. We lost Prairie Rep Theater, we don't need to lose another event in Madison.

  2. I don't know, Anon. I can tell you that hosting is hard work, but it's not overwhelming. The Madison school district and the Bulldog debate team have done it for decades. All we need are the rooms. You don't even lose a full day of school; the tournament can start at 2 p.m. on Friday.

  3. Could Madison's history offer a solution? When the first college building burned the town was in jeopardy of loosing the school so the community offered its churches and the opera house. I’m thinking of all the bible study rooms, especially within the Methodist and Lutheran churches. There might be a couple sympathetic English teachers on the historical society board who I suspect would also hate to loose the event. John Hess

  4. I can not believe the school simply does not support hosting a tournament. I'm sure they would furnish the rooms at the Middle and High School if someone ran the tournament.

  5. Cory, is there someone we can contact to 'lobby' for the preservation of the Mundt tournament? I'm willing to write a letter, an e-mail, or make a phone call. Put the word out and let us know how to help!

  6. Comrade:

    Why have you not contacted the Madison Sup't for their side before blogging?

  7. John: Not a bad back up plan! If DSU has to host, they'll be looking for every spare room around campus they can get. Is your living available?

    Brian: Honestly, I'm not sure who the right contact person is. Suggestions, anyone?

    Comrade: I didn't contact John McCain for his side, either. ;-) Anyone who'd like to post other sides is, as always, welcome; comments are open....

  8. Let's face it. The program of debate or any debate tournaments that take any outside time for the coach just isn't her thing. The program at Madison may just as well be scrapped unless they get a coach who is really willing to work with the kids. It's a shame that these kids here in town are "going to be in the future" and "have been" short changed in this area. Mundt is a wonderful opportunity and should be kept and encouraged in this community especially by the school system. If it's a matter of take a couple hours off the school classroom time then sports should have the very same standards. No one leaves the classroom for any reason - including going to any sporting events (players/students included)nor be allowed to have events here. Hum - doesn't make sense does it.

  9. My disgust runs rampant at this time. I am an alum of the FINE tradition of forensics at MHS, the Mundt Tournament, and the Dakota Invitational. I also possess trophies from both these tournaments and have coached and helped run tournaments in other schools. I understand the needed man-power and resources necessary to run such a tournanment. Cory is right, it does take quite a bit, but it CAN and IS done on weekends all over South Dakota from November through February. That is part of the tradition of debate in South Dakota. Might I stress the word, TRADITION. With this new information with MAdison not wanting to host the Mundt I am disappointed in the tradition that will be lost if this continues. One can look at the individuals that have come from the Madison program and can see the tradition of excellence alive and well and continuing to give back not only to Madison, but to communities all over South Dakota. We have teachers, coaches, politicians, doctors, professors, clergy, writers, laborers, parents, and the list is exhaustive. These people continue to support the program at Madison by raising their children in Madison, by sending their children to the college, by voting, by coming back to donate time money by judging the tournament. This is not a tradition that kids participate in and then leave, they continue to give and give and give back to the program that gives them so much.
    The debate program, in any school, if done correctly, fosters independence, critical thinking skills, effective argumentation tactics, organization and writing abilities, and again the list is exhaustive. What is happening here will not only affect both the college and high school in Madison, it will also affect the schools from across the state that come for the LAST regular season tournament before qualifiers for Nationals begins. It is a much loved and anticipated tournament and has become more than an institution in Madison, it is TRADITION.
    It is true that if Madison lets the Mundt go, there will be another school to benefit. That is fact. What is also fact is the tragedy for Madison as a whole that will create.
    If Madison is for EXPECTING the UNEXPECTED, as their city slogan implies, one would hope that the UNexpected move would be not to buckle under the strain of internal pressure and assess what is more important. Is one person's weekend comfort more important, or is the educational integrity of decades long tradition more important? Is the easy route more advantageous, or is it more prudent to instruct the young people in timeless traditions and respect for an activity that has given so much to so many of its alumni.
    I remain a proud alum of the Madison program and the Mundt tournament. I mark my time in debate as some of the most worthwhile weekend time I have ever spent. It has given me more than an appreciation for communication, I have lifelong relationships with countless coaches and fellow alumni from across South Dakota. It remains the reason I am still in education and foresee my children participating as well.
    I urge anyone and everyone to join in on this venture to save the Mundt and preserve a tradition that is EXPECTED.

  10. Hey, Anons, I appreciate the sentiments. If there is a "venture" to keep Mundt in Madison, though, we'll need some names and faces, folks willing to drop by the school, visit Mrs. Knowlton or Mr. Schaefer or whoever, and say, "What can we do to help?"

  11. I read all the comments, but no one has evidently talked to Renee Nills or the supt about it, at least no one has given their reasoning. Is that true? Why in the world are two people able to shut down what is so obviously a great experience for the students plus a bonus economically and PR wise for Madison?

    Can you imagine what would happen if a couple of powers that be decided not to host some long established sports attorney???

    Sort of along the same line, does anyone remember Odyssey of the Mind, now called Destination Imagination. That is another great program that has been completely absent for years in Madison. It taught problem solving, creativity, thinking skills, and was open to any and all kids regardless of abilities or aptitudes. But it wasn't a sport so....

    And I agree if part of the problem is that kids miss some classes for debate, then set some standards that apply equally to all extracurriculars, and then see how quickly the debate absences become accepted!

  12. I'm taking the opportunity to jump to conclusions before we have the official side of the story. It's pretty easy to do that, what with the state defending it's constitutionally "adequate" bare bones definition of education while the administrations in many schools have eviscerated anything that smacks of academic or cultural excellence, filling its staff positions with teachers who are "yes men" who won't cause trouble. The sports programs, of course, because its proponents are so vocal, demanding, and irrational, keep adding facilities and stealing classtime. Please let us know the end of this story. Maybe it will give the rest of us a little backbone.

  13. It doesn't take jumping to conclusions to see that the Mundt Tournament is a valuable event worth keeping at Madison High School. Others can spend time figuring who's saying "we can't"; I'm more interested in finding out what it takes to say "Yes, we still can!" I welcome further discussion....

  14. Comrade was right. Why hasn't someone asked the "powers that be" why they want to make the change? You know, that reach across the aisle mentality. Clearly no one wants to loose the event, but there should be a well rounded view. If it's important to you, send an email to Vince Schaefer or give him a call. I found him to be a reasonable person. If I remember right, he grew up in Franklin, pretty close to Mundt's home town of Humboldt and would understand the heritage. Parents should share their view. Isn't that the reason we support the state K-12 system? John Hess

  15. This would be a great letter to the editor issue for the Madison Daily Leader. I'm curious what Ms. Nills has to say to support herself.

  16. Well, you know, Anon, you could put your name to what you're saying and write that letter yourself....

  17. Between all the comments that have been posted I see that most believe that the Madison community is more than enthusiast to support Mundt and Debate program at MHS. Coming from an MHS Debate background, I can honestly say that this is far from true. Sure everyone supports it because they may make an extra buck from all the kids that come to town for the weekend, but after that I see nothing. No support to help run or faciliate the competition, no volunteers to give space or room to have debates, and no one saying "Yeah we'll help." I would find it hard to believe that if you asked any business that in order to continue Mundt they would actually have to help, that they would be willing. It's easy to say that we should keep Mundt at the high school, but beyond that no one is willing to offer any real solutions. If DSU is willing to facilitate Mundt, who says that they don't have the right. Anyone who has visited the Mundt library can see an entire exhibit on the great senator and what he has done for DSU. I think it would be fitting that, should MHS not run Mundt, DSU, who has as much claim to the Mundt name, should.

  18. Interesting, Anon, but perhaps not the point, at least with respect to Mundt. What support from local businesses do we require to run the Mundt tournament? Darn little. Financially, the tournament is fully supported with money from the Mundt Foundation and the school budget. Managing the tournament is a built-in part of the debate coach's salary. Students on the debate team help run copies, straighten up rooms, and run other errands (it's a great team-building activity, by the way). Coaches from other schools come help in the tab room during the tournament. All that support is there at every other high school that hosts a debate tournament. Madison has found that support for Mundt for four decades. We can easily continue to find that support.

    I do agree: DSU has as much right (and probably interest!) to host as MHS. That's why DSU has participated in Mundt from the beginning. But as I said above, even if DSU took over the main hosting duties, it would likely still require the active participation of Madison High School to offer a full, sustainable tournament.

    Real solution? High school, rooms, debate team -- we have all the components for a real solution right in front of us, just as we have for the last 40 years.


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