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Challenge Grant for Champions
Victoria Sickinger
FIRST IN THE U.S.: National Debate Tournament top speaker Azja Butler, the first Black woman to receive this honor, is grateful for the support of (L to R) KU Debate Director Scott Harris, Assistant Coach Ned Gidley and Assistant Director Brett Bricker.
Seeking support for KU’s outstanding debaters

Six national championships, 18 Final Four appearances, 41 first-seed picks and 54 consecutive years of qualifying for the tournament. And we aren’t talking about KU basketball.

The University of Kansas is rated in the top 5 schools for debate — ranked among universities such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Northwestern. KU Debate has a tradition of excellence.

During the 2020–2021 season, KU Debate was ranked No. 2 in the National Debate Tournament (NDT). Other accolades included winning three tournaments, earning awards as the NDT top two speakers and team president Azja Butler being named National Debater of the Year. Butler is the first Black woman to be named top speaker at the NDT and the third KU student to win the national debater award.

Fierce competition

KU Debate has an impressive history of winning, and recruiting talented students is key to continuing that success. KU competes against top-ranked schools that can provide full-tuition scholarships. In the last three years, KU has lost top recruits to schools such as the University of Kentucky, Baylor University and University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In order for KU Debate to continue winning championships, it will need additional scholarships.

Alumnus David Pittaway was a member of the KU Debate squad in 1970 when the team won a national championship, and he continues to maintain an interest in debate. Pittaway introduced a challenge grant this year to meet the urgent need for the program to recruit top talent. He is matching donations made to the KU National Debate Championship Scholarship Fund up to $500,000 during the next five years, in hopes of reaching the debate program’s goal of $1 million.

“Several years ago, I endowed the David B. Pittaway Professorship of Debate,” he said. “Recently, Chancellor Girod approached me and said KU Debate really needs more scholarships to remain competitive. When the chancellor twists your arm, it’s hard to say no.”

Challenge accepted

The Debate Alumni Advisory Council has launched a campaign to meet Pittaway’s challenge grant. Council members and donors have made pledges to kick off the fundraising effort. The campaign is seeking the support of additional alumni and friends to help KU Debate continue its tradition of excellence. “When I’m long gone, I want to make sure KU is a top five school in the United States in debate,” said Mark Gidley, Debate Alumni Advisory Council chair.

Gidley is familiar with what it takes to be successful at debate. When he joined the KU Debate team in 1979, coach Donn Parson already had two national championships under his belt. Gidley was hopeful for a chance at winning a trophy. In 1982, he was top ranked with his colleague, but did not secure the championship. In 1983, the debate budget was cut by half, which was devastating to the program. Gidley recalls having to scrape by to get to the national championship. The KU Debate team packed a cooler with sandwiches and headed for Colorado to compete in the NDT. Although Gidley and partner Rodger Payne were not top ranked that year, they claimed the U.S. championship title.

Gidley said the team’s championship title wouldn’t have been possible without his teammates. The strength of a debater is in the quality of the research; the bigger the squad, the more resources you have.

National Debate Tournament top speaker Azja Butler with the trophy.
Photo by Ann Dean
Giving back

Gidley began supporting KU Debate soon after graduating. Having experienced what it was like to have resources slashed during his time in debate, he was highly motivated to give back. In the early 2000s, when Gidley learned resources for debate had declined and the members were dwindling, he stepped in and created the Mark and Bridget Gidley Debate Scholarship. The KU Debate connection continues with Ned Gidley, Mark and Bridget’s son, who is now an assistant coach working closely with student debaters.

Gidley’s involvement with the advisory council made giving to the KU National Debate Championship Scholarship Fund and Pittaway’s challenge grant a natural fit. Thanks to the generosity of all the donors so far, the campaign is off to a great start and is nearly 1/3 of the way to meet the $500,000 challenge.

Road to excellence

Azja Butler considers debate and her community of people as the pillars of her KU experience so far. Last year, the debate team competed in 16 tournaments, totaling 460 debates. Three teams qualified for the NDT, two made it to the Elite Eight and one team — Butler and partner Ross Fitzpatrick — made it to the Final Four.

When the senior learned she won National Debater of the Year, Butler was in shock. She admitted it was harder debating online than in person.

“It was nice to feel like the debate community came together and appreciated the work I was doing,” Butler said. “A lot of my arguments were about community and maintaining relationships over distance, so it was really full circle for me to receive that award.”

Butler always wanted to attend KU because several friends, mentors and her high school debate coach are alumni. However, coming from a family with four children, Butler wasn’t sure that dream was attainable. A student loan helped her make it through freshman year. After joining KU Debate, Butler gained assistance from the Mark and Bridget Gidley Debate Scholarship and other existing funds. She will graduate next year with a degree in secondary education and a minor in African American studies.

“KU changed my life, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of generous donors and people who believe in making academia accessible to everyone,” Butler said.


If you want to support this challenge, contact Brandon Woodard at 785-832-7397 or make a gift at

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