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  • Dr. J. L. Witt

Mourning in NU Debate

This is part of an official announcement for a debate team I've coached for the last 10 years and have been the head coach of for the last six years. This website is not an official university page and the thoughts and opinions express here, are not endorsed or representative of Northwest University.

Major Changes to the NU Debate Team

It is with great sadness that I bring you the news that the Northwest University Debate program will significantly change their level of participation in intercollegiate debate.

In an effort to promote fiscal soundness into the future, Northwest University has undergone a significant prioritization process in order to decrease annual spending by $3 million. As a result, the Debate Team will be less active next year than in the past. Next year we will only travel to 2-3 local tournaments in the greater Seattle area. I will continue to coach the team and focus our efforts on public debates and community engagement.

NU Debate has existed in various forms for more than 40 years, but took a dramatic leap in competition and organization when Professor Gary Gillespie arrived at NU to teach communication studies in 1985. In his press releases, Coach Gillespie often wrote, “Want to know how Northwest stacks up against the best schools in the nation? Come join the debate team.” Over the next 29 years, Coach Gillespie grew the program to compete at the local, national, and international levels. There are very few coaches that dedicate such a significant portion of their lives to a program and run it so successfully. His dedication to the team was complete.

I competed under Coach Gillespie’s leadership from 1995-1999, and served three of those years as the first team captain. In that time, we broke at nationals twice, won many tournaments, and contributed to a thriving Pacific Northwest debate community. Debate at Northwest led me to coach and earn my MA at the University of Northern Iowa, and equipped me to teach in Japan for three years, earn a 2nd MA in English, and earn my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Debate had and continues to have a profound impact on my life and I’m just one of the hundreds of students who participated in speech and debate at Northwest. Among their ranks are Lawyers who argued before the Supreme Court, Pastors, Missionaries, Professors, Teachers, Business Leaders, and Public Servants. All of those people started with one speech, and through their hard work and the dedication of Coach Gillespie and his assistant coaches, they were formed into better speakers, better critical thinkers, better people.

When I came back to Northwest to teach as an adjunct professor in 2010 and an assistant professor in 2011, Coach Gillespie was quick to involve me with the team. I served as his assistant coach from 2010-2014, ultimately allowing him to take his first sabbatical in his time at NU. It was after his sabbatical that Coach Gillespie approached me about taking over the team. I agreed. He wrote an excellent reflection called, “A Debate Coach’s Farewell Address” ( where he encapsulates his journey, the value of debate, and entrusting me with his program.

For the last six years, I’ve worked hard to live up to those expectations. I expanded our travel, volunteered to tab tournaments around the nation, helped on issues of equity and diversity, and helped the team accomplish some of their most successful years in Northwest University history. In addition, upon Coach Gillespie’s retirement from NU and his promotion to faculty emeritus, I started the Gary Gillespie Debate Tournament. In my own time as an assistant and head coach, I’ve worked with some amazing students who found success both in debate and after NU. It has been my joy to see them grow and find success in their lives and I’ve come to see why Coach Gillespie found such great joy in coaching. My love for my teams and commitment to the principles of effective and respectful discourse makes these budgetary decisions heartbreaking and particularly stinging to happen on my watch. Perhaps in a kinder budgetary cycle, the team may return to higher funding levels, but for the foreseeable future, NU Debate will not be competing in intercollegiate debate outside of the greater Seattle area. I want to assure our supporters, alumni, and current team members that this decision is purely budgetary and based on university budgetary priorities. I will retain my position at NU as an Associate Professor of English and continue to coach the team in this new, reduced capacity.

The participants and the awards they won over the course of the program are too many to list, but I want to thank each of you who’ve been a part of NU Speech and Debate. Your successes and testimonies of the impact of debate on your lives is what keeps coaches working long hours and fighting for the activity. I’m proud to have been one of you and then to coach another generation who enriched NU Speech & Debate and carried the call at Northwest University. I especially want to thank Johnathan Swayne (Class of 2016) for serving as assistant coach under me for the last 4 years, and Professor Gary Gillespie for all of your work, encouragement, and trust.

Although we’ve lost a lot and the cuts are still fresh, the work carries on. Speech and Debate is an inherently educational activity and I still have full faith in the goodness it brings to the lives of my students during their time at NU and the many years they will spend using those skills, knowledge, and empathy in the world around them. Even in times of struggle, our team motto still guides our work together as we strive to build “A better World through better discourse”.


Jacob Lee Witt, Ph.D. Team Captain, 1996-1999 Assistant Coach, 2010-2014 Head Coach, 2014-Present

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