Cal Poly Debate is as old as the institution, and like the institution, Cal Poly Debate has gone through many changes over the years as the program adapted to the needs of students. The debate team won the university's first trophy, a silver loving cup presented to the winner of a series of debates between California Polytechnic School and San Luis Obispo High School. Held in 1904 and 1905, these debates would be particularly controversial today, as topics induced students to a defense of “excluding Chinese from Federal territory” (the status quo at the time).
The accounts of the debates were prominently reported on the front page of the San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune. In 1906, when Cal Poly students published the first issue of the school's original newspaper—the monthly Polytechnic Journal—the lead story recounted the history of the debate trophy, which Cal Poly Debate won while advocating against the Chinese American cause. That the negative won this debate serves as a reminder that civic discourse can be used to enfranchise or disenfranchise the very citizens who those in power are meant to serve, and that our discourse and whom it serves are not fixed.
Over the years the Cal Poly Debate Team has competed in a variety of events including Policy Debate, British Parliamentary Debate, and Individual events. Today the Cal Poly Debate Team is part of a movement away from tournament circuit debating. Instead the Cal Poly Debate Team prides itself in participating in the Civic Debate Conference, an approach to academic debating that seeks not merely to win trophies as an intellectual exercise, but to present arguments to communities in need of civic discourse on issues of empowerment and justice. We are rhetoric-centric rather than sophistry-centric. We select our topics for debate carefully to ensure that they serve all members of our team and the wider community, and to be certain that our students will never be forced into advancing morally fraught arguments.
Along with the preservation of the preceding historical documents here, the historic silver cup and debate awards of more recent vintage are on display in the English building lobby and the Cal Poly Debate Team Squad Room in Building 22, Room 318. In addition to tournament trophies, the Cal Poly Debate Team annually awards an Outstanding Debater Award and the Terry Winebrenner Award for students who distinguish themselves from their peers on the basis of superior skill and service to the team.
- History of Cal Poly's First Trophy taken from "Debating," California Polytechnic School Polytechnic Journal, January 1906
- Cal Poly Debate History: The First Debate taken from "The Polytechnic Wins," San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune, May 14, 1904
- Cal Poly Debate History: The Rematch taken from "The Polytechnic Wins," San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune, May 5, 1905
Since 1970, Cal Poly Debate has recognized one of the debate students as the season's "Outstanding Debater." Click the link below for a complete list of the award winners.
From 1982 to 1994 students in the program also participated in individual speaking events competition. During that period, Cal Poly Debate recognized one of the individual events students as the season's "Outstanding Individual Events Competitor." Click the link below for a complete list of the award winners.