Emory Debate Leader Retires After 43 Years of Service

Executive Director of Forensics Melissa Wade will retire at the end of October after 43 years of service at Emory in which she received Emory’s highest faculty honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award, and led Emory’s Barkley Forum to 30 national intercollegiate debate titles.

Wade has directly taught and worked with members of the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education at Emory and has helped transform it from a group of 25 students to a prominent center for debate education. On top of that, she serves in the Division of Educational Studies as the director of Campus Life and assists senior undergraduate students in the Goizueta Business School at Emory.

Wade, who graduated from Emory in 1972 and began working at Emory one month later, describes her departure from Emory not as retiring, but rather as repurposing. She will continue to stay involved as president of the Glenn Pelham Foundation for Debate Education, an organization created by former Director of Forensics Glenn Pelham to secure resources for elementary and secondary school students to competitively debate. She is also confident that the Barkley Forum will continue to grow.

“I’m leaving when I have wonderful successors and at a time when I can move to another part of supporting Emory debate,” Wade said.

The Emory alumnus has also promoted debate outside of the Emory community, as one of the key founders of the Urban Debate League (UDL) in Atlanta — an organization that began as a graduate school project in 1985 and developed into a collaboration between the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education and Atlanta Public Schools that aims to equalize education opportunities within socioeconomically challenged schools. It has now spread to 24 major U.S. cities and has supported over 70,000 people, ranging from third graders to those in their 70s.

 “[The UDL is] just this fascinating collection of people who are bound around a particular activity, and it’s been a very meaningful part of my life,” Wade said, noting that she did not initially expect the program to grow as large as it did.

Since 1976, Wade has participated on each National Associated Press Presidential Debate Evaluation Panel for presidential elections. Only two other debate coaches in the United States have done this, according to Emory’s Barkley Forum website.

Wade has also been a strident proponent of more female participation in debate — a fight that was uncommon when she began working in this field, according to Associate Director of Forensics Bill Newnam.

Newnam felt that working with Wade as a colleague was “an honor and a privilege,” describing her commitment to debate education for young people as “profound.”

“Her impact has been far more than just local because at every step and every stage, her enthusiasm is infectious to other people,” Newnam said.

Indeed, Wade has contributed to debate outreach not just locally, but also nationally, conducting international debate outreach in other countries, particularly at Ewha Womans University and Kyung Hee University in South Korea.

She has also contributed to over 150 publications about debate as well as Debate Across the Curriculum, an instructional resource that seeks to link debate skills to classrooms.

Students have also seen Wade’s positive impact on the community firsthand, according to College junior Kristen Lowe, who credits Wade with teaching Emory students as well as the greater Atlanta community to listen “compassionately, attentively and respectfully” in debates and creating a space in which “people with underrepresented voices can go to be heard” by working with the UDL to ensure that all students receive the opportunity to participate in debate regardless of their socioeconomic statuses.

“Melissa certainly taught me debate,” Lowe wrote in an email to the Wheel. “But more importantly, [Wade] made it her job to ensure being a good debater could translate into being a good student, activist, friend and human. She listened not just to the loudest voices, but to everyone.”

College senior Jason Sigalos agreed, acknowledging that “the impact of [Wade’s] legacy will live on in the culture of honest conversation that pervades many circles of Emory’s campus.”

“It’s been a real gift to be at Emory all these years,” Wade said. “Emory has a resilience and passion to grow, and I have been very fortunate to be a part of that.”

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