UT National Champions

The award-winning Tennessee Speech and Debate Society (TSDS) launched its season September 21, 2019, kicking off its fourth annual alumni-led workshop with the announcement of a new endowment named for former coach Norma Cox Cook.

TSDS is a fully student run and alumni funded team that competes in the International Public Debate Association and individual event-style tournaments. Aside from traveling to debates across the southeast, TSDS team members host public forums on campus, an annual college-level tournament, and a high school debate camp at Knoxville’s Clayton Bradley Academy. After a dormant period in the 1990s, the team has roared back to success, winning dozens of regional, state, and national awards since 2013.

“We are working to continue our national championship streak and provide our members with opportunities for development in public speaking, academics, and leadership,” said Cole Pawlaczyk, a senior public relations major and team president. “The team has the talent, skill, and volume it needs to continue being competitive.”

Team alumnus Bill Haltom (’75, ’78) is a lead donor to the new endowment, which honors Professor Norma Cox Cook’s legacy as director of forensics and head debate coach from 1968-1977, when the team was a national power.

“I owe so much to the UT debate team and my coach, Professor Norma Cook,” Haltom said. “My involvement in the debate team enabled me to become a trial lawyer and writer. It also forged life-long friendships with a number of my fellow debaters.”

Haltom noted in the award presentation that recruiting fellow donor Mae Jean Go (’75) to the team in the early 1970s was one of his key contributions as a student.

The endowment earnings will support outstanding student debaters, including fees for research materials, travel, and other purposes related to the mission of the team. With the formation of the Norma Cox Cook Endowment, alumni have given and pledged more than $150,000 and many volunteer hours to the team in the last six years.

“The skills these students are developing as debaters will enable them to be leaders in whatever careers they pursue,” Haltom said.

“For myself and many students debate spills over into everything else we do,” Pawlaczyk said. “From nailing a class presentation to doing great in a job interview, or just being able to defend and advocate for your beliefs as whole.”

When surprised by the award named for her, Professor Cook was delighted.

“It takes a lot to make someone in this endeavor be at a loss for words,” Cook said. “All I had to do was present the space and opportunity for students to develop their own talents. When people ask me about my best memories of my teaching years, debate is always at the top of the list.”

Holly Jackson-Sullivan (‘87), director of development for the College of Arts and Sciences, has driven the new era by connecting alumni to students, soliciting funds, and advising the team. Enrolling in UT at the young age of 16, Jackson-Sullivan found that debating led her to a group of smart, witty, and competitive students and also honed her professional skills.

“The evidence-gathering helped my research skills and helped me learn to better qualify reliable sources of information,” Jackson-Sullivan said. “I use debate skills on a daily basis. The ability to think on my feet has served me well, and it has helped me to see things from both sides. I wish more people could do that!”

“As a student debater, I gained skills in extemporaneous argument that help me today on the bench to explain difficult topics in ways that are concise, sympathetic, and easy to understand,” said Pamela Reeves (’76, ’79), Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Tennessee. “This is an important program. I’d like to see debate be much more appreciated by the university.”

“I can guarantee that without my experience on the debate team, I wouldn’t have secured my post-graduation job as a Policy Specialist with the law firm Arnold & Porter in their Washington, DC office,” said Mickayla Stogsdill (’19), a four-year member and two-time president/coach of the team. “The debate team was like a family to me. The team is full of traditions, such as eating Chinese take-out the first night of competition. Giving to this team as an alumna came naturally, because I knew that my giving would inspire other young alumni to donate and that my money was being used to fund something worthwhile.”

Future goals for the team include securing adequate funds to pay a professional coach and getting support for the team into the university budget.

Learn more about how to get involved with UT debate as a current student or an alumnus. Follow the team on Facebook. Want to support the team? Click here to make a donation.

By Jane S. Gulley