Trond Jacobsen’s office is filled with the artifacts of spoken history at the University of Oregon. Jacobsen, the director of forensics at the UO, walks over to a copy of the Oregon Weekly — the Emerald’s first name— placed on the door of his office.
The Oregon Weekly’s 1901 cover story: “We’re doing great in debate and we’re doing great in track.”
“That’s the most important story on campus,” he said. “And obviously, being an Oregon Duck, the fact that these were mutual victories over Washington makes me feel even better.”
Jacobsen, a UO grad who participated in the debate team, is now working to preserve the history of forensics, or the art of debate and argument, through writing a book on its history at the university.
“Competitive speech and debate are really at the heart of the UO’s experience,” he said. “Eleven days after its founding, two competitive debating societies formed.”
Speech and debate clubs were formed for both men and women, but Jacobsen said that the two groups quite literally broke down the barriers that separated them by knocking down a wall in Deady Hall to participate together.
During the late 1880s through the early 1980s, three donors gave gifts to the university to support students who participated in speech and debate competitions. Jacobsen said that these competitions were campus-based and that the winner would receive prize money from the funds. Eventually, Jacobsen said that in the 1930s, the UO began to compete against other colleges and the Department of Speech was eventually formed.
“For about the first 50 or 60 years, campus based speech and debate events were the cultural highlights,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen said that the UO pioneered different forms of debate, including the first radio debate and the first intercollegiate debate. The UO’s debate team even traveled around the world.
The Department of Speech was dissolved in the 1990s due to funding cuts, but Jacobsen said that the program was still supported by staff.
“We were grateful that the university and the director of forensics at that time — Dr. Frank, while he obviously and his colleagues were unhappy that the department of speech had been canceled — they were able to ensure that the forensics program itself continued to be a strong presence at the UO.”
Today, forensics at UO is continuing to grow. Jacobsen said that when he came to UO in September 2013, the program only had 13 or 14 participants but now that number has grown to anywhere from 80 to 100 people. The forensics program now includes individual speech events, debate and mock trial.
During the end of April, Jacobsen and the UO made changes to the language of three gifts that donors gave for speech competitions. Monetary gifts to UO often come with restrictions from the donor, identifying specific purposes for the gift. Jacobsen said that the gifts could no longer be distributed as they were originally intended to be, so he and the university went to court and asked the judge to transfer discretion of the funds to the UO’s forensics programs.
“Forensics today is no longer primarily about hundreds of students on campus competing over the course of the year, it’s now about being a part of a team that may host a tournament but principally travels to tournaments across the country,” Jacobsen said.
Ultimately, the judge agreed, and Jacobsen said that the money will go toward travel, lodging and registration expenses for the students who participate in the forensics program today.
“They [the funds] were used to support Oregon students competing in speech and debate and they will be used to support Oregon students competing in speech and debate, it’s just that what it means to participate in speech and debate has changed.”
Jacobsen said that forensics helped him to grow as a person and he also saw it help others around him, adding that there is research that shows that it can help people of all backgrounds to succeed.
“As a graduate of the program and a graduate of the University of Oregon I feel blessed to have this job and to help carry that tradition forward and to make sure that vision of donors of the past is realized today.”