Wiley College sees enrollment soar with revived debate team

Dallas Morning News

A few years after reviving its once-famous debate team and getting a $1 million gift from Denzel Washington, Wiley College is on a roll.

The historically black college in Marshall, about two hours east of Dallas, has seen its enrollment shoot up 50 percent in the six years since The Great Debaters put it back in the national spotlight for the first time in decades.

When the flick featuring Washington was released in the winter of 2007, Wiley carried about 925 full- and part-time students. It eclipsed 1,400 five years later and now boasts a few students shy of that.

The school didn’t rest on its laurels.

Like many successful liberal arts colleges around the nation, particularly those with limited resources, Wiley wisely is taking something it’s known for — debating — and leveraging it for recruiting, fundraising and academic innovation.

Last semester, for example, the school integrated debate into its core curriculum, a move aimed at improving the critical thinking and public speaking skills of its students.

The initiative basically infuses debate training into every facet of coursework, from freshmen on up. Students also will attend debate workshops and incorporate the skills they learn into other disciplines.

“No one is doing it the way we’re doing it,” said Tammy Taylor, the school’s director of public relations. “A lot of people are waiting to see how we do it.”

Talk about innovation. We’ve seen the same thing going on here in Dallas with Paul Quinn College, another historically black school that was forced to reinvent itself to stay in the education game.

Paul Quinn, as you know, took a 2-acre tract that once housed the football program it could no longer afford and turned it into a community garden. The WE Over Me Farm is now an agricultural business, a key learning tool and a marketing bonanza.

Wiley is doing more than talking a good game, too. It’s winning on many fronts.

In January 2008, a month after The Great Debaters made its debut, the school president told me he realized Wiley had a great chance to bounce back from decades of relative obscurity.

“I jokingly tell people now that Wiley was founded in 1873 and discovered in 2007,” Strickland quipped. “All of a sudden, people realize we’re here.”

The movie chronicled the legacy of Melvin Tolson, the brilliant debate coach who turned an upstart group of black students into a national powerhouse at a time when the South was rigidly segregated.

In 1935, Wiley’s underdog squad defeated the reigning national debate champs from the University of Southern California.

But Wiley’s high-powered team disbanded after Tolson left in 1947, and the school lost its national luster.

Sixty years later, the Hollywood flick worked like pixie dust, again turning Wiley into a wonder child on the debate circuit.

Christopher Medina, director of forensics at Wiley, said his team won 386 events last year in debate and other competitive speaking contests. Next Friday, the team will host the three-time world debate champs from Monash University in Australia.

There are a lot of people to praise for Wiley’s resurgence, including Dallas businessmen Joe Kirven, the Wiley alum who inspired another businessman, Sam Wyly, to donate $300,000 toward reviving the debate program.

And you can’t forget Washington’s generosity. Or the recent $25,000 private foundation grant the school got to help with its debate workshops.

But how nice is it to see Wiley take those gifts and turn them into something greater: a refined curriculum that will teach all its students how to stand on their own feet.

James Ragland writes on race and culture, education, social services and public health. Follow him on Twitter at @jamesragland61 and on Facebook at facebook.com/JamesRagland61.