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  • Writer's pictureClaire Shang

The Limits of Accountability

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

A year on Columbia Debate Society.

By Claire Shang

Content warning: This feature contains discussions of sexual misconduct and sexual violence response.

On Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, four high schoolers logged into their online debate round with no intention of debating. It was octafinals of the “Ivy League Parliamentary Championships,” one of two tournaments the Columbia Debate Society hosts annually for high schoolers, and the largest on the East Coast for high school parliamentary debate. But this year, the high schoolers felt, a number of things had gone wrong. So they decided to forfeit a coveted spot in elimination rounds, using the time and space to initiate a discussion with CDS leadership.

The most immediate aim, said Matt Mauriello, the students’ informal coach and a former high school competitor who now debates for Harvard, was for CDS to acknowledge the tournament’s flaws.

It is customary for tournaments to release an equity policy and hold an equity briefing before the first round, to establish steps debaters can take if they experience an equity violation or feel unsafe. Despite emailed promises to competitors and verbal commitments between club members, CDS did neither. And when two separate concerns about judge and competitor racism and homophobia were raised on Friday, Feb. 19, the team equity officer “ghosted” the complaints, said Mauriello. Further, objections to two debate motions written by CDS were so intense that CDS issued a formal tournament-wide apology the next evening.

But from the beginning, this bungled high school tournament was more than an isolated February incident. While mid-tournament boycotts are not unheard of, especially on the West Coast, this one developed into a referendum on CDS as an institution.

Months prior, the high schoolers had expressed hesitation to Mauriello about entering a CDS tournament after hearing warnings about the team’s mishandlings of equity concerns within the club and instances of sexual misconduct. Mauriello advised them not to participate, but they ultimately chose to attend, partially due to pressure to collect points towards nationals.

While the high schoolers’ discussion began with the tournament’s flaws, it escalated quickly into an indictment of CDS’s actions and inactions over the past year. In August, increasingly public events from the summer had culminated in an unprecedented—and ultimately unsuccessful—vote by the American Parliamentary Debate Association, the intercollegiate league in which Columbia debates, to remove CDS as a member.

A CDS deputy and equity officer were present for the Feb. 21 discussion. Around halfway in, the tournament director joined the call and proceeded to launch a number of ad hominem attacks, according to two individuals present. This mid-tournament boycott round garnered 20 spectators over its two-hour duration. It was clear then that CDS could not outrun its history.

“Secretive shadow” systems

When I asked Rodda John, CC ’22, newly-elected APDA president and former CDS deputy, to confirm that allegations of sexual misconduct in CDS occur annually, he responded “yes” before the question had even landed. John’s comments are not on behalf of APDA, and he has recused himself from league discussions on CDS.

After a pause, he clarified that this pattern extended back three or four years before his joining the team in 2017. Every conversation about CDS’s culture returns to this fact of yearly sexual misconduct. But it remains difficult to grasp something so pervasive—what former members described as a fundamental issue with the club’s culture.

To begin, it’s important to define the organizational structure that supports said culture. As established in the team constitution, the CDS board comprises eight elected members and two additional deputies. In 2016, John recalled, the team added two equity officers—a common position both within college debate teams and as a league-wide supervisory presence at tournaments. Within CDS, the equity officer position is independent from the board and officers cannot participate in board voting processes. They are not elected but selected by the board through an application process.

In reform commitments released in August before APDA’s vote to sanction CDS, the board wrote that equity officers “act as intermediaries and mediators in situations of interpersonal conflict on the team, including incidents of racism and sexism.” They clarified that “This has also at times been extended to responding to allegations of sexual misconduct, at the request of survivors.” This latter function violates University policy, which prohibits student groups from independently creating policies for, or taking action against, sexual misconduct.

But as John stated, the equity officer position is “technically nothing.” It is neither in the constitution nor on the team’s website, and its existence was only recently revealed to the administration. Previous attempts to articulate or formalize the role faced long-standing refusals by multiple CDS boards, he added.

The “secretive shadow equity officer,” to use John’s wording, exists for good reason: Clubs have long struggled with internal arbitration for microaggressions and incidents of misconduct when victims do not wish to go through administrators, authorities, or Title IX.

But the undefined bounds of the position often stirred controversy within the team. Former CDS member Niharika Rao, BC ’23, recounted a successful mediation in which she brought a team member’s sexist comments about her to the equity officer, and they were able to arrange a productive conversation between the two debaters.

In cases of sexual misconduct, though, said Rao, the officer became a “conduit to suppress the information and suppress more serious action being taken against it.”

Discussions about some aspects of club reform tended to get mired in back-and-forths about University policy. Partly as a result of equity officers’ proximity to the board, there have been several instances of board members sharing private information from equity complaints—early reform proposals urged the board to codify procedures that would remove such individuals. These were eventually dismissed as violative of Columbia regulations. The team has also repeatedly invoked an unverifiable claim that the University would disband the club for having an equity officer system.

But the impact of Title IX regulations on team governance is just part of the CDS story, one that was rarely the primary focus of those calling for change. What these debaters asked of CDS were actions definitively in the club’s control—follow-through on written commitments and meaningful steps to dismantle a dangerously exclusive team culture.

“A tornado of bullshit”

Rao described the events that both allowed for and explained the February high school boycott as a “tornado of bullshit.” The tornado, then, to adopt her phrase, first picked up speed over the summer.

On June 12, a Columbia Confessions post highlighted CDS amid campus-wide discussions of organizational reform: “everyone’s calling out frats that protect sexual predators, but let’s not forget that there’s a bunch of clubs here that protect sexual predators too, columbia debate is more concerned with their reputation than helping the actual survivors of sexual assault on their team.”

The next day, Catherine Zhu, BC ’22, published “Why I left Columbia Debate Society” on Medium. She wrote the article over the course of a year, during which she gradually removed herself from the club before quitting in February 2020. The article, which rebuked CDS singularly and publicly, was circulated even beyond Columbia, garnering 4,000 views.

Zhu recounts feeling “drawn in” by CDS even before arriving at Barnard. Part of its allure were its “exclusivity”—with an acceptance rate in the low teens—and ubiquity as a prominent presence on campus.

But she became disenchanted with CDS after assuming a deputy position on the board. The team’s history with sexual misconduct was hidden from her as a novice—now, she was directly confronted by these issues, as well as the board’s “inaction and self-preservation” in response to that history.

Zhu gained firsthand experience with this culture. She described a highly upsetting board meeting in which an officer, who had a history of microaggressions, “made a distinctly suicidal gesture in response to their point being cut off by another team member.” She filed an internal equity complaint and wrote letters to the board and team before leaving. The Medium post was, as she tweeted in June, a “last resort” to make CDS’s culture known.

Less publicly, within the three days after the Columbia Confessions post went up, three team members formally resigned, including Rao. Each shared individual statements pushing for change, culminating in a letter to the board. Among other exhortations, the 19 signatories representing current and former CDS members asked that the equity officer no longer handle cases of sexual violence or safety issues, and that the team improve communication with novices by disclosing CDS’s history.

On June 13, the board posted in the team Facebook group, with a preface that “this post is not in response to the letter that was published yesterday.” In it, they bullet-pointed five commitments: mandating sexual violence response training, clarifying the powers of the board and the equity officer, requiring additional training for those individuals, listening to team members, and “mak[ing] sure novices understand the history of the team and the resources available.”

Rao and the other authors of the original letter were disappointed by the Facebook post. “Though the Board does present certain, limited, actionable changes, it fails to admit a culture problem,” they wrote in a June 15 public comment, distributed as a Google Doc. Similarly, they noted that there had been no acknowledgment of Zhu’s Medium article. The memo concluded: “We hold it to be morally corrupt to continue to recruit vulnerable first-years into this culture.”

This public comment garnered over 70 signatories from CDS and across APDA, in hopes of externalizing pressure on the board.

The writers linked a document of proposed reforms, including a call for an external committee of current and past team members “empowered to take further action and overhaul the structure, and policies, of the team.”

This reform committee—“the largest concession that was granted by the board in the spring,” said John—first convened on June 23. Though board and non-board members alike expressed hope for the committee’s longevity as an accountability mechanism, by late August, it was no longer in existence.

The public comment, as its authors hoped, did precipitate more serious discussions about CDS’s future. Each APDA member school holds one vote, which is typically determined by a vote by each respective board ahead of the meeting. In late August, an anonymous proposal presented to APDA called for the removal of CDS’s voting privileges until they demonstrated “sufficient reform,” such as a public apology and an updated equity policy.

Illustration by Vanessa Mendoza

This proposal attracted attention, but was not compliant with APDA bylaws: A team cannot retain member status without a vote. The motion was thus revised on the floor of the meeting to remove Columbia as a member school. This timing resulted in an abnormally high number of abstentions as teams shied away from casting votes on a proposal they had not discussed with their boards first.

The APDA vote was 14-10 with seven abstentions; it required a two-thirds vote to pass. Without the logistical oddity, he added, “it’s highly likely that such a motion would have passed.” Despite the failure, the number of votes in favor still marked broad support of the proposal’s original language: that the APDA body “recognizes that the executive board of the Columbia Debate Society failed to adequately address harms committed by its members and knowingly allowed these harms to continue being committed once grievances were brought forth.”

In October, the Penn and Smith debate societies proposed a boycott of Columbia’s mid-month college tournament on APDA’s internal forum. Twelve college debate teams co-signed. Though the tournament proceeded as usual, Mauriello noted a participant count in the mid teens, “strictly lower” than peer competitions.

Rao referred to the events of the fall to explain her belief that CDS is irredeemable under its current leadership and organization. “A league-wide APDA vote, and they barely did anything,” she said. “That’s really embarrassing.”

As of April, the number of concrete reforms implemented by CDS can be counted on one hand. The only change to the hotly contested tryout process has been to introduce a two-week summer workshop for potential recruits without prior debate experience.

The team also now holds two trainings a year through Columbia Health’s Sexual Violence Response. But this increase from one to two trainings could hardly be championed as a substantial reform, as it was in a March 7 open board meeting. As John explained, CDS made the decision to hold spring tryouts this year, so one SVR training per semester was exactly in line with years past. This was also a far cry from one of the team’s written commitments in August to “conducting multiple SVR trainings through each semester.”

The team similarly congratulated itself this spring on implementing biweekly open board meetings. John noted, though, that open board meetings had been one of the most specific summer demands, but did not begin until March, after the high school tournament.

The “playbook,” John summarized, is: “Make a performatively good-sounding promise to end the discussion and status quo and just take the wind out of the sails of reform, then never do it, and when asked, blame the reasons for not doing this on others.”

CDS referred again to this playbook in their response to the high school tournament. According to Mauriello, board members at the Feb. 21 discussion made multiple promises toward the end, especially as their failure to implement reforms in the summer was revealed. “They said, ‘We will release a statement on Facebook acknowledging Catherine’s concerns.’ And they’ve yet to do that.”

“Blindly co-opted into a system”

The commitment most glaringly left unfulfilled was CDS’s promise of transparency to novices.

Those pushing for change highlighted their novice years in their decisions to leave. Rao summarized the experience as “overwhelming”: Within a week of acceptance, novices were expected to travel with the team and spend their weekends competing at other campuses. “You’re sucked into it,” she described, recounting biweekly practices starting at 8 p.m. and often spilling into the next day.

“It’s not entirely negative, but it’s like, of course I met my partner through debate,” she said, “because that’s all I seemed to do.”

While there is no mandate that novices immediately plunge into this level of involvement, Rao, Zhu, and a current novice who requested anonymity all identified a power imbalance that defines the novice experience. “The idea that I had been given an opportunity that so many people tried to get,” wrote Zhu, “made me feel indebted to the upperclassmen and the team.”

For Rao, the team’s embedded power dynamics became evident at an October 2019 equity town hall. It was her second month on the team; she expected to hear about standard equity topics, like increasing racial diversity in debate. Instead, discussion ensued about an instance of sexual misconduct from spring 2019. The victim impact statement called for CDS’s disbandment—it was this moment that introduced Rao to CDS’s history. With little warning, it felt like a Pandora’s box of hate and sexual misconduct had been opened.

“I didn’t know shit,” said Rao. “I wish I had known this so I could have at least chosen what I was being opted into.” Suddenly, she didn’t know where she stood within a team she viewed as integral to her college identity—indeed, as family.

The current novice I spoke to had reservations about joining CDS after reading Zhu’s article in July, but thought issues of physical safety and potential overinvolvement would be curbed by the online modality. This year’s novice experience, though, was surprisingly consistent with previous terms—equally as overwhelming over Zoom.

In the fall, the board disclosed the three misconduct allegations from the past three years. But new team members were under the impression that everyone involved had left the team, and furthermore, that the team had adopted substantial reform committee suggestions, the novice said.

It wasn’t until February that the three dozen novices glimpsed the full scope of the team’s history. Hearing the high schoolers condemn CDS “made it sound like there were a lot of problems with members of the current board,” the anonymous novice said, “which is not this kind of narrative we were given before.”

In the wake of the high school boycott, this novice realized that about half of the new members were unaware that the Medium article even existed. Zhu noted on Twitter that her piece received 286 views that same week, a spike significant enough that Medium emailed her about it. Afterwards came anger, confusion, but also a “general atmosphere of, ‘We don’t know who to trust anymore,’” the novice said.

When asked to comment on the events of the past year, the newly-elected board, in collaboration with some team members, wrote that “CDS kept our new members from the 2020-2021 academic year unaware of this history due to the 2020-2021 board’s lack of information about the team’s history. We have not been transparent with the team’s history and concerns about this opacity are justified. As a team, we understand that this history could make novices reconsider their membership.”

Not only did CDS fail to fully convey the team’s history with sexual misconduct to fall and spring recruits, they continued to conceal new information that arose this academic year. Novices were informed about neither the September APDA vote nor October APDA boycott. Even as many served as judges for the high school tournament, they were not fully aware of the events of the February boycott until board meetings in subsequent weeks. One novice had even seen the controversial motions discussed on Facebook without realizing they had occurred at the CDS tournament.

The novice I spoke to acknowledged that the June resignation letters and board response had been accessible in the team Facebook’s history. But when they joined, they said, “none of us knew to look for it, because we were mostly reassured by the older members of the team that [the misconduct] was just stuff that had happened in times past.”

This spring, some novices proposed that the board release a timeline for full transparency, internally or publicly chronicling CDS’s sexual violence response. The board cited conversations with their advisor that established any such timeline as violative of Columbia policies, according to minutes from a March open board meeting.

The novice expressed confusion at this rationale, given that the documents “that made us really upset were available to us from the beginning.” CDS could have easily directed novices to those posts at the beginning of the term, they said, to fulfill their commitment to increasing transparency about the team’s recent past.

After speaking with their friend on another college team, the novice soon realized that every debater in the league had some level of knowledge about CDS’s history—everyone except CDS’s own novices. Summarizing this conversation, they said: “Basically every other member of the APDA league is worried about us, is how she put it. Which was terrifying.”

Most novices have stopped attending regular practices since the high school tournament. Very few were competing this semester, newly wary about being affiliated with the Columbia name. Ultimately, said the novice, they would have preferred simply not being on the team this year “than to have joined the way that I did.”

Rao was also most impassioned when she spoke about her time as a novice, her voice at times trembling sharply. The frustration she felt was only compounded by the February high school tournament, she said, as she watched her own experience repeat before her eyes.

“It’s always, like, the young novices or the young high schoolers who are ostensibly the most vulnerable members of the debate community,” she said. “And who CDS seems to have no moral obligation towards.”

“A farce of democratic processes”

In the reform committee’s first meeting on June 23, newly-disaffiliated member Yaniv Goren, CC ’22, expressed hope that the committee would meaningfully tackle equity issues. “Creating an ersatz model of democracy within the team doesn’t matter” if the new system doesn’t bring about reform, Goren argued, according to meeting minutes.

His words predicted the reform committee’s mid-August dissolution, in line with a trend of superficially progressive measures that did not generate change.

The equity officer position is another clear example. John elaborated that the equity officer was often posited as a check on the board, but was unable to effect any change due to its lack of a vote on the board. “It’s the judiciary without any enforcement powers,” he described, “which is the problem.”

Zhu cited internal equity forums as another instance of “actions that seemed kind,” but, in her experience on the board, were “only to prevent the victim from speaking out through other means and from the incident getting leaked,” she wrote.

In a culture that presented channels to achieve change as change itself, there was no room for genuine conversations about the club’s history. Instead, town halls devolved into debate-like discussions, which Mauriello characterized from his own experience as “combative” and “almost corporate and forced,” relying on argumentative phrases like “even if.”

Distilling a legacy of misconduct into one incident, town halls fostered defensiveness. Rather than admit a broader issue, those in positions of power “deflect[ed] by trying to make sure that no one individual person was held responsible,” Mauriello said of the board’s response to the high school tournament.

On Aug. 12, the reform committee discussed and voted on tryout procedures. Originally, tryouts were a logistical necessity, limiting the team’s size to ensure all members could attend tournaments for free, John explained. Now that the team runs three tournaments, which serve as fundraisers, it no longer functionally needs tryouts.

In the meantime, tryouts have become the stuff of lore. Said the novice of this year’s tryout process, “it was terrifying and intimidating,” even in its online modality. They acknowledged that any club with tryouts would inevitably have to reckon with problems of exclusivity—but this year, CDS had had the choice to change it.

Ultimately, the reform committee’s hour-and-a-half-long discussion about tryout models culminated in a 7-4 vote to abolish tryouts altogether.

The majority pointed to the instrumental role tryouts play in enshrining exclusivity and in selecting recruits “who can speak a certain way,” said John, referring to students who had had access to high school debate and were generally more privileged. A number of other APDA schools have already forgone tryouts, so it was demonstrably feasible.

Others argued that abolishing tryouts would open the team to more “straight white men” instead of encouraging diversity. By their logic, tryouts functioned as a filter to keep potentially toxic people from the team—“a completely new line that was trying to performatively out-woke the reform committee,” said John. The remaining four votes thus went to a “hybrid fall and revisit spring later” model—“hybrid” referred to “tryouts and affirmative action,” in which all BIPOC applicants would be accepted.

However, these stances were of little significance in the end, as the board subsequently put the issue to a team-only vote. This was “a bar that had never been discussed before,” said John, and meant that those who had left the club due to CDS’s harmful history were unable to participate in its reform.

The vote failed 19-3. Fall tryouts proceeded without change, notwithstanding the “affirmative action” proposal that garnered four votes in the reform committee meeting.

John labeled the team vote a “farce of democratic processes” because the number of people voting was not high enough to be a quorum of the team. This reflected a larger issue with CDS: that after novice year, lacking a support system in the face of an exclusive board, most team members simply leave, informally or formally. As a result, as the novice recounted, “it basically looked like there were three members of the team that were varsity, but not on board.”

By the end of the summer, it was evident CDS would remain almost entirely unchanged. In ways, this felt like a foregone conclusion for a club that discouraged retention and drove its harmed members to resign. Ultimately, it could not fix itself.

“I’m always hopeful”

Rao applied to be an equity officer last spring, hoping to change CDS from within. “I withdrew my application when I realized that reforming is not the way to go about it,” she said.

This academic year, she affiliated with Penn’s debate team. She still believes in the value of debate as an activity, especially as a form of self-advocacy for minorities. In other words, Rao still has hope for CDS.

Without this optimism, Rao said, she has no choice but to think “this is like a soul-sucking thing that’s going to, like, exploit high schoolers and novices til the end of time.”

For the debaters who left, the first step towards reform—board members resigning in favor of new leadership—never occurred. This April’s board elections, though, present potential for change: Novices now make up over half of the newly-elected board.

In the emailed comment, the board acknowledged failures as recent as the “insufficient” response to the February high school tournament while gesturing toward the future. “We are still committed to creating more spaces for conversations about the team’s past, explaining past incidents to new members of the team, and expanding our suite of equity-centered events (including, but not limited to, more SVR training),” they wrote. They cited a number of commitments and initiatives “in the works,” such as committees to expand team members’ voice within CDS, a novice curriculum centering discussions on equity, “restrictions on the presence of alcohol at team events,” and feedback forms. Tournament planning, including motion-writing, will be opened up to all team members, they added.

When I asked the novice why they had stayed on the team this year, they at first laughed: “Yeah, I think about that a lot.” Like Rao, they cited a hope that CDS is redeemable. But in their next sentence, they self-corrected: “I think there’s a pretty good chance that it isn’t, just because these problems are so deep-rooted.”

“If something else happened in the future that was substantial,” they said, “I think I would probably just immediately leave.”

So despite the past year’s continuous discussions about reform, there remain no clear actions that any one individual can take when confronted by the club’s legacy of inherited inaction—they can endure it, or walk away.

In recognition of individual team members’ inability to push for change, Zhu concluded that “there is no reason for a club whose culture directly fosters this culture of harassment, assault, and inequity to exist.” And while this may be true, it’s just as likely that debate will never disappear as a campus presence. But in the future, a CDS without tryouts and with transparency might come to be. And at that point, the novice said, “it would be a different debate team.”

*Correction (5/1/2021): Data on the APDA vote was updated for accuracy.


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