UC San Diego’s Day of Caring, U.Care, takes place May 13-14th 2021. As part of our effort to support student success, we have highlighted UC San Diego’s Speech and Debate team and undergraduate clubs for your giving consideration. All gifts in support of UC San Diego Speech and Debate during u.care will be matched dollar for dollar up to $5,000 by an anonymous donor.
Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, Robert (Coach) Campbell idolized University of Kansas basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. Young Coach had dreams to follow in Chamberlain’s footsteps: representing his university across the country and filling trophy cases with hardware that glimmers like a college kid’s own smile after a hard-fought win. Coach achieved all of the above, but he did not do it on the basketball court. He became the winningest debater in the University of Kansas’ history. Since 2018, the seventy-five year-old Campbell has been building a nationally recognized speech and debate program right here at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management.
It’s not common to find a collegiate speech and debate organization connected to a business school. Campbell, who ascended to executive positions across seven different industries, has taught undergraduate business ethics and marketing courses at the Rady School for over a decade. “I can credit my whole career to public speaking success,” he says. A Northwestern MBA graduate, Campbell built his career in financial services, ultimately becoming Chief Operating Officer of a billion-dollar bank. With more than 20 years banking experience, he then transformed companies including California’s second-largest insurance brokerage—developing strategic plans and negotiating deals that spared businesses from bankruptcy. Campbell also coaches UC San Diego’s Adwave and Commercial Real Estate teams.
Campbell’s professional expertise and experience are an invaluable component of the Rady School’s mission to develop future business leaders. In concert with a strong quantitative curriculum, opportunities such as speech & debate cultivate the public speaking and critical thinking skills essential to succeeding in business. It’s a sentiment that Coach believes in firmly and relays often. So much so, that his message on the importance of effective communication echoes from his students to their peers outside of the classroom.
In 2018, Coach was approached by two undergraduate students (who were not in his classes but had heard about his communications expertise) to resurrect their student-run speech and debate organization, which would be forced to disband without the support of a faculty advisor. “I’d been thinking about this since I came to Rady,” says Coach. “I took this as a sign.” Any fledgling organization needs wings to fly, and Coach agreed not only to be the club’s advisor, but their head coach, too.
Campbell’s impact on this team extends beyond both of those titles. He has invested innumerable hours over the past three years building a program that is now ranked third in the nation, Junior Division, by the National Parliamentary Debate Association. In his good humor, Coach jokes that his role is that of “a leader, a cheerleader and a sheep dog,” a combination that encompasses his passionate dedication to the success of these students. In pre-pandemic times, one would often find Coach on campus leading speech and debate practices until 11 p.m., holding court at a café for the team’s general business meetings, driving the team to competitions throughout Southern California (in “Ruby,” his red Ford Explorer and the adopted team mascot), and walking for miles across said competition sites to celebrate each student.
“The amount of work that goes into coordinating this team is beyond a full-time job. The fact that he does all of this is unbelievable,” says Vice President of Coaching Jasmine Moheb. “He is my superhero in every way possible.”
Moheb, who studies political science and international relations, first fell for speech & debate while in high school in Woodland Hills, CA. She joined the UC San Diego team in the fall of 2018, and has helped shape the organization as lead coach to her fellow student coaches, working closely with Campbell. In addition to building a close community, Moheb says that helping other students build their public speaking skills has been the most fulfilling part of her speech and debate experience. “It’s a really exciting feeling to think that you’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life, that now they’re more confident or want to pursue a new path because they have these skills,” she says.
Earlier this year, Moheb was selected as an alternate in the prestigious Fulbright Cultural Exchange Program, and she credits her own speech and debate experience for her interest in policy work. Her long-term goal is to become an intelligence analyst in Washington D.C. “Debate is much more than picking a side and sticking to it. It requires you to think critically and articulate your thoughts. It requires you to stay informed and get a deeper understanding of the issues. You develop a drive to seek knowledge constantly,” Moheb says.
The pandemic put the team’s critical thinking skills to the ultimate test. As speech and debate programs across the country shut down, Moheb, Campbell and their team transitioned online. They continued to practice several times a week, and they introduced new styles of debate to their repertoire. Their persistence, as well as the now-virtual nature of competitions, led the team to debate against highly competitive institutions on the East Coast and abroad, such as Oxford University.
“The most rewarding part of this all is the pride I see on the faces of these kids when they realize they’re representing UC San Diego, and they’ve won,” Campbell says. “We started with a dozen kids in fall 2018. This year we surpassed 50, and next year we expect 50-70 as our reputation grows.” The organization is open to undergraduates and graduate students, and includes students across diverse disciplines and majors. Unlike some established debate programs, Coach runs his team as a “no-cut sport,” welcoming all students who have an interest, regardless of experience. “If you haven’t done it before, we’ll make you good at it. If you have, we’ll make you great,” he says. He’s not kidding. In the past year, team members participated in 20 tournaments and earned more than 60 awards, including 13 in first place.
As we inch closer to a more open world, the speech and debate team is anxious to build on a successful year in cyberspace. Growing this organization in size and status rests the on team’s ability to travel to competitions outside of Southern California (when safety guidelines permit). Ultimately, Coach says, this requires resources beyond what the team can expect as a student-run organization. His hope is that the team will be recognized as an official campus program, granting it more permanence and stable funding. “I feel a sense of urgency,” he says. “At 75, I may be running out of time!”
Much like he did for the University of Kansas, Campbell has led this team to many victories, as a full trophy case at the Rady School goes to show. More so, he has helped shape dozens of future leaders to engage in critical thinking, sharpening their communication skills and preparing them for successful careers.
“It’s purely out of his passion because he feels like it’s his calling to help this team,” says Moheb. “We need to find a way to really celebrate him. The world really needs to know what he’s done. But more than that, we need to implement the learnings he has taught us into our everyday lives. That is how we can truly honor Coach Campbell and the life-changing impact he has made on this community of students.”