Debate team hires first female director

Photo courtesy of Kiran Dhillon

The oldest student organization at USC has just appointed its first female director. Kiran Dhillon, a lecturer of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, will now lead the USC Trojan Debate Squad.

Dhillon was first hired by USC in 2016 as the assistant director of the Trojan Debate Squad. Gordon Stables, the former director of the debate team, is confident in Dhillon’s ability to continue the program’s legacy.

“We were very fortunate to convince her to join the Trojan family and the Debate Squad is well-positioned for a tremendous era under her leadership,” Stables said in an email to the Daily Trojan.

Stables also cited Dhillon’s experience in different environments as a notable asset to the debate team going forward.

Kiran is a remarkable debate scholar and a fantastic educator,” Stables said. “She has a very rare combination of skills and experiences with academic debate in a number of settings.”

Dhillon will be the program’s 12th director, the first woman since the organization’s first director in 1914.From its inception in 1880 until 1914, the program had no director and was entirely student-run.

The role of women in the leadership of academic organizations is a familiar topic to Dhillon. She invoked an article she co-authored in graduate school called “Biological Sex as a Predictor of Competitive Success in Intercollegiate Forensics.” In her work, , she suggests that increased female presence in the mentoring and advisement of these organizations could help bridge the gap between men and women in forensics.

The Trojan Debate Squad has consistently ranked among the elite debate teams in the country, with the longest consecutive streak of qualifying for the National Debate Tournament at 53 consecutive years, Dhillon said. They expect to have an even stronger season than last year and are projected to rank within the top five, according to Dhillon.

Dhillon has participated in debate since her freshman year in high school. Initially, though, she had her reservations about participating in the debate team.

“I attended one debate meeting at 15 years old and I thought I wasn’t coming back,” Dhillon said.

Debate, however, began to pique her interest, and she never turned back.

“I was thrown in as a newbie straight into varsity which was a scary experience, but I stuck with it,” Dhillon said. “There was something about it that I thought was fascinating. The sheer amount of information research that students were doing at 15 years old was fascinating to me and I thought, I want to learn how to do this, even if it’s hard.”

By the time she became a senior in high school, Dhillon said her team became one of the top 16 debate squads in the country. They competed at the Tournament of Champions, an annual debate event held at the University of Kentucky that is considered the most prestigious tournament for high school-level participants.

Dhillon continued to debate competitively through her undergraduate years at the University of Iowa. She then began coaching debate as an assistant coach at the University of Northern Iowa during her master’s program.

Upon reflecting on her role as the first female director, Dhillon mentioned her family, particularly her three younger sisters.

“For my sisters, it sets the tone that whatever they want to accomplish, they’re very well capable of it,” she said.

Dhillon emphasized how important it is for all aspiring students to have a grasp of public speaking skills.

“It is a theoretical foundation that I believe sets the tone for just about everything that we want to discuss or accomplish,” Dhillon said.