Successful and popular Fresno State policy debate coach reassigned

When Brian Rubaie first judged a collegiate debate competition featuring the California State University, Fresno, team in September 2017, he was immediately impressed by Tom Boroujeni, the director of the Barking Bulldogs debate team, who appeared to be “an exceptionally dedicated coach.”

Boroujeni, a lecturer of argumentation and policy debate, was one of three finalists in April for a national debate coaching award from the Cross Examination Debate Association, or CEDA. Primavera Leal​ Martinez, who was a graduate assistant for the debate team, won the 2020 award for outstanding graduate student coach.

For Boroujeni to be nominated and Martinez to win the award in the same year was “definitely a huge distinction and not very common,” said Rubaie, director of debate at University of Iowa and president of CEDA, a national organization that sets annual policy debate topics for intercollegiate tournaments. Two of the team’s top debaters were also invited to the 2020 National Debate Tournament, or NDT, at James Madison University, which was scheduled to take place in March but was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s undeniable that Tom and Prima are some of those people doing the best stuff,” Rubaie said, noting the Fresno State debate team’s talent and competitiveness. “They’ve built a really supportive environment.”

Everything about the Barking Bulldogs — their chemistry, competitive performance and leadership — seemed to be going great, directors in the collegiate debate community said.

But even as the team collected national accolades, Boroujeni and the student debaters knew that the 2019-20 academic year would be their final run together. Boroujeni’s supervisor in the Department of Communication had told him in October 2019 that he would be reassigned to nondebate classes at the end of the academic year and removed as coach. The news came as a surprise and was a huge disappointment for Boroujeni, who had led the team since fall 2016.

Colleagues called Boroujeni’s reassignment “capricious” and “just really sad.” The student debaters were “shocked” and “confused,” and a majority quit the team as a result and joined the debate team at Fresno City College, where Boroujeni now coaches and teaches.

The debaters had pressed Fresno State leaders over several months for an explanation for Boroujeni’s reassignment and were given various answers, none with a specific reason for his removal. Boroujeni said he was told the reassignment was in line with his contract as a temporary, full-time faculty member and that his superiors left it at that. He said they also canceled meetings he’d scheduled with them to discuss his removal.

Martinez and other students sent a series of letters in April to the heads of the communication department and the College of Arts and Humanities. They also wrote the university President Joseph Castro and Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, provost and vice president for academic affairs. The letters expressed the students’ disappointment with the decision and the negative impact it would have on the debate program over all.

Many students said they would quit the debate team if Boroujeni was not coaching them, according to the letters shared with Inside Higher Ed. Three students described how Boroujeni supported them through their struggles with mental health issues. Two others wrote that Boroujeni “saved my life.”

Boroujeni’s removal as coach would “deter the upward trajectory that the team is currently on and will guarantee that debaters will quit the team,” Martinez said in an email to university leaders.

“I, like many other students, have found a mentor in Tom,” wrote Martinez, who has known Boroujeni since she was a high school debater. “I have had many professors and instructors in my life which I am indebted to; however, none of them can replace the role that Tom has played in my life.” Martinez wrote that she and other debaters were “confused about where this decision comes from.”

Boroujeni said he cried when he read the students’ letters.

“I could not stop crying because I didn’t know I saved their life,” he said. “They found solace in the place that we created.”

He said the entire situation “has been frustrating and upsetting,” especially because of the harm done to the debate team.

“Potential has been taken away from our students,” he said. “It’s always been a family, and I value that significantly that I was a part of it. That space has been taken away.”

Kevin Macy-Ayotte, chair of the Department of Communication, where the debate program is housed, said Boroujeni’s reassignment was part of a new “vision” for the department. The forensics program, which includes academic instruction on speech and debate, has long been planning to diversify its academic offerings beyond team policy debate, which is Boroujeni’s expertise, and expand it to include individual debate, Macy-Ayotte said. The program is currently without a permanent director of forensics to supervise the instruction and operations of the debate team.

The department planned to hire a new, tenure-track assistant professor to start in August 2021 as director of forensics and also coach the debate team with the help of graduate assistants and other faculty members, Macy-Ayotte said. The director of debate position held by Boroujeni would no longer be needed as a result.

Macy-Ayotte said he sympathized with the student debaters upset about Boroujeni’s reassignment but that the new structure “fits all around for the program’s needs.”

“I appreciate very much their support for the debate program and for the coaching staff,” Macy-Ayotte said. “I’m glad that they had a positive experience with Tom Boroujeni and I understand with any team situation there will be frustration with changes. I would hope that any commitment to the debate program would remain exactly that.”

Rubaie called the department’s restructuring plan “unusual” and “quite difficult” because it might rely too heavily on graduate students to manage the debate team.

Boroujeni said he was not told about the programmatic changes. Students on the debate team said they received various explanations for the decision and were told the matter was a “personnel issue.” They and others in the collegiate debate community continue to be troubled by the fact that a beloved and successful coach was cut out of the program’s future.

Boroujeni’s supporters were even more confused when the department assigned a different lecturer to coach the team for the 2020-21 academic year, before the new director of forensics assumed the role.

Searching for an Explanation

In response to inquiries about his reassignment, Boroujeni said he was told that as a temporary faculty member under the CSU system’s collective bargaining agreement, the department has the right to reassign him and that his contract only entitles him to a specific course load, not specific courses linked to the debate team.

Boroujeni said he was offered no further explanation by Macy-Ayotte or Honora Chapman, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. An email to Boroujeni from Chapman shows that Chapman canceled a meeting with him scheduled for April 24 related to his reassignment and said she is “leaving all questions about who will teach debate classes next year” to Macy-Ayotte. Chapman declined to comment about Boroujeni.

Patti Waid, director of communications for Fresno State, said in an emailed statement that “the university determines teaching assignments based on the course schedules needed to accommodate our students and based on the qualifications of the individual lecturers.” It noted that those determinations are made by the faculty committee of each academic department.

“Assignment of specific courses to temporary faculty members can change each semester and is not assured,” the statement said. “In fact, class assignments frequently change for faculty. Due to confidentiality laws, we cannot comment on personnel matters, including the rationale or process related to changes in the faculty assignment for our award-winning debate team. We look forward to the team’s continued successes.”

The lack of a detail in the explanation Boroujeni said he received has led him to speculate whether the faculty committee sought to have him reassigned for personal reasons.

“I just don’t know why they did this,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is they have a vendetta against me.”

Boroujeni, who is originally from Iran and came to the United States in 2003, noted past incidents of racial microaggressions directed at other faculty members of color in the Department of Communication who left the department because they were unhappy with the environment.

One of those former faculty members is Deven Cooper, who was director of debate before Boroujeni.

Cooper, who is Black, was the first director of debate at Fresno State to take the team to the NDT and is now director of debate at CSU Long Beach. He coached at Fresno State when Boroujeni was a graduate assistant for the team. Cooper said he left the university in 2016 in part because of the “unpleasant” and “hostile” environment he experienced in the communication department.

Cooper recalled faculty members in the department disparaging the academic capabilities of students from high schools in the Fresno area who were often Black or Hispanic or from low-income communities. He said he advocated for increased recruitment by the Honors College of high-achieving students of color for the debate team and suggested the department diversify course reading materials but faced pushback from other faculty members. These incidents, along with offensive comments about race made during department faculty meetings, contributed to Cooper’s decision to leave the university.

“The faculty were just not with it,” Cooper said. “I can’t say it was all of Fresno [State]. There were many people that were supportive and pro-student, but there were many members of that faculty that didn’t understand Black and brown students.”

Although Boroujeni said he hadn’t experienced the same overtly racially biased treatment, he often felt a “benign” or “hidden” racial discrimination, culminating in the way faculty leaders gave him the runaround after he was reassigned.

Waid, Fresno State’s spokeswoman, did not directly respond to Boroujeni’s and Cooper’s comments about the racial climate in the communication department.

“The University strives to attract, develop and retain a qualified and diverse workforce in an environment where discrimination and harassment are not tolerated, and any such claims are taken seriously and handled in accordance with California State University policies,” Waid said in an emailed statement.

Boroujeni said there was friction between him and Douglas Fraleigh, a longtime professor of communication and former director of forensics who was chair of a communication department committee overseeing the search for a new director of forensics. Fraleigh was director of debate from 1990 to 2003 and coached the team while Boroujeni was in Iran for about a month in January 2019. Four student debaters sent notes to Macy-Ayotte complaining about Fraleigh’s leadership and saying he was out “out of touch” with the students and policy debate topics.

Boroujeni said the students’ stated displeasure may have caused Fraleigh to have personal misgivings about him as director of debate. But Fraleigh said in an email that he was unaware of the students’ complaints and that he does “not perceive interpersonal tension between Tom and myself” and noted that he gave Boroujeni a “favorable” recommendation for a position at a different college.

Fraleigh also noted in his emails that “intercollegiate forensics includes debate and individual speech events and different lecturers have experience and expertise in these two different genres of forensics.” The new debate coach and instructor, Natalie Meany Cavallero, “has expertise in individual events,” Fraleigh wrote.

A Different Direction

The Department of Communication has been trying for several years to reshape the forensics program, which encompasses debate, to go beyond instruction for competitive policy debate, which is Boroujeni’s area of expertise, and include individual forms of debate and speech, Macy-Ayotte said.

The search for a new director of forensics was further complicated when the department learned that the person selected for the position, CV Vitolo-Haddad, had admitted to misrepresenting their racial identity. Fresno State rescinded the job offer to Vitolo-Haddad, who was slated to start as director in fall 2021, according to a departmental email sent by Macy-Ayotte. As part of the planned changes, there would be no coach for the debate team for the entire 2019-20 academic year. The department assigned Cavallero to fill the gap during the current academic year rather than keep Boroujeni in the position.

Cavallero did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Cooper, the former Fresno State debate director, said Cavallero was his graduate assistant for one year and he recalled that she preferred parliamentary speech-focused debate over policy because of its accessibility. Macy-Ayotte said Cavallero was made interim debate coach precisely because of her background in parliamentary debate.

“They have different expertise in different areas of forensics,” Macy-Ayotte said of Boroujeni and Cavallero. “It was just a determination of the best structure for the team.”

The mission of the forensics program “is to provide students with a range of opportunities to develop advocacy, critical thinking, and oral communication skills through intensive research, practice, and competition,” Waid added in an email.

Cooper said Boroujeni has the knowledge and expertise to teach and coach the other styles of debate.

A ‘Bleak’ Outlook

Joel Lemuel, director of debate for CSU Northridge and committee chair of the NDT district that encompasses California, Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona, said it is “inscrutable” and “doesn’t make sense to me” why Boroujeni would be replaced by another coach at this time.

He learned through students that all of the remaining debaters had left the team and some of them decided to pursue their master’s degrees at different universities as a result of the decision to reassign Boroujeni.

Lemuel initially thought Vitolo-Haddad would be a great addition to the Fresno State forensics program and would have “perfect synergy” with Boroujeni. Then, Lemuel heard Boroujeni was no longer the coach and that Vitolo-Haddad had admitted to racial fraud.

“It’s like the worst of all outcomes,” Lemuel said. “To push out a person of color who’s fucking killing it despite low resources, and not just competitive success, but personal success … It’s looking pretty bleak right now, honestly.”

While the Barking Bulldogs team now has Cavallero as its coach, six of the eight students who debated under Boroujeni are now members of Fresno City College’s Rammin’ Debate team led by Boroujeni, said an undergraduate student who made the move and continues to take classes at Fresno State. The two other students are no longer debating; Boroujeni said they now help him coach the debaters at Fresno City.

Despite the logistical challenges of studying at one institution and competing at another, the student said it’s worth staying with Boroujeni and their teammates.

“It’s been a little bit more difficult,” said the student, who does not want to be named because she fears retaliation by the heads of the communication department at Fresno State. “But the coaching, the team dynamic, because our team and our family is the same, I wouldn’t give that up.”

For now, the search for a director of forensics at Fresno State is on hold, the university spokesperson said. Boroujeni is still waiting for a response to a formal grievance he filed with the university’s Office of Faculty Affairs about the nature of his reassignment. The students who continue to debate under Boroujeni remain optimistic that they can get him reinstated as coach at Fresno State after nearly a year of fighting the department’s decision.

Cooper, the former director of debate at Fresno State, said the Barking Bulldogs may not survive without Boroujeni. The team’s invitation this year to the NDT, “the oldest and top tournament in debate,” was an achievement that brought “prestige” to the university, he said. But he’s not confident the team will be able to compete at that level without Boroujeni.

“I feel like that department is cursed when it comes to debate, which is sad,” Cooper said. “It’s just really sad.”

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