History

Eras of Debate at Rutgers
2009-present: Debate Renaissance
2001-2009: Debate Union Refounded
1990′s: Rutgers University Debate Union
1980-1993: Rutgers Forensic Society
1970′s: Rutgers Debate Society
1956-1969: Rutgers Debate Team/Society
1924-1956: The Reager Years
1900-1924: Early Intercollegiate Competition
1881: The First Intercollegiate Debate
1800′s: Unknown Unknowns
1766-1799: Queens, Kings, and Revolutions


2009-present: Debate Renaissance

The Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU) is currently enjoying perhaps the most successful period of competitive forensics in the university’s 247-year history. In 2009-2010, RUDU broke four times to elimination rounds on the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) circuit, led by juniors David Reiss ’11 and Kyle Bomeisl ’11/12, as well as star novice Chris Bergman ’13. The team finished the year ranked 24th in the league, the slimmest preview of the breakout success that was to follow in 2010-2011. In that season, RUDU finished 5th overall in College of the Year (COTY), with Reiss and Bomeisl finishing as 7th Team of the Year (TOTY) and first-year Ashley Novak ’14 taking 2nd Novice of the Year (NOTY). Reiss and Bomeisl went on to break at the National Championships, the first time in APDA history Rutgers did so, marking the 27th varsity break of the year for RUDU. The next season (2011-2012) featured 26 varsity breaks for RUDU, with the team finishing 9th in COTY, 6th at the North American Championships, and both 3rd and 10th in NOTY (Quinn Maingi ’15 and Kurt Falk ’15, respectively).

The most recent season (2012-2013) was the best-ever for RUDU, featuring 41 varsity breaks, a 3rd COTY finish, 9th place at the National Championships, and 4th NOTY (Sean Leonard ’16). The team closed the season with 14 straight weekends of breaking varsity, extending more than a full semester, and qualified 7 individuals for Nationals, sending 5 full teams to the year’s culminating tournament.

See Awards and Accomplishments from 2010-2011, 2011-2012, and 2012-2013.

The 2010-2011 Rutgers University Debate Union poses with some of their key annual awards before the end of the year banquet. Left to right: Gordon Morrisette, Nisha Kumar, Thomas O'Rourke, Ashley Novak, Chris Bergman, Kevin Parks, Farhan Ali, Adam Bomeisl, Kyle Bomeisl, Stephen Yellin, David Reiss, Alex Weiss, Bhargavi Sriram, Storey Clayton, and Krishna Kavi.


2001-2009: Debate Union Refounded

The current incarnation of RUDU was founded in 2001 by Samuel Kim, Evan Luce, and an intrepid band of fellow Scarlet Knights. RUDU has existed continuously since, competing on the APDA circuit for over a decade and hosting the annual Rutgers Invitational each spring. The team enjoyed its greatest success of the millennial decade in 2005-2006, when the senior team of Ross Mazer ’06 and Carl Kunda ’06 broke twice and finished 45th TOTY. Other debaters to break in this era were Prashant Iyer ’07 (thrice), Ed Fu ’08 (twice), and Sam Zeidman ’08 (twice).

Some of the weekly updates from the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 teams can still be found on this website.

Members of the 2004-2005 Rutgers University Debate Union prepare trophies to be awarded at the conclusion of the 2005 Rutgers Invitational. Yale defeated Fordham in the finals to win the tournament. Left to right: Sam Zeidman, Ross Mazer, Dan Ahn, Meredithe McNamara, and Carl Kunda.


1990′s: Rutgers University Debate Union

A prior incarnation of the Debate Union existed briefly in the mid-1990′s, competing on APDA and working in partnership with Rutgers’ then long-standing Forensic Society. A Rutgers team (Levy/Vanderpool) broke to quarterfinals at the Wesleyan tournament in 1994-95. It is suspected that other teams broke periodically and this Debate Union enjoyed moderate success and respect on APDA. This team was probably founded no earlier than 1991 and died out by about 1997.


1980-1993: Rutgers Forensic Society

Rutgers supported a Forensic Society for a long period of time, from 1980 to at least 1993. This seems to have been an outgrowth of the prior Debate Society and actually replaced it for a number of years. This Society participated heavily in intercollegiate competition, vying for success on the National Forensic Association (NFA) circuit, which consists almost entirely of individual speaking events such as dramatic interpretation and impromptu speaking. Rutgers finished as the 17th overall team in the 1980 NFA National Championships, with Paul Mansfield as a quarterfinalist in Impromptu and David Fischler a quarterfinalist in Rhetorical Criticism. J.G. Harrington, who competed for Rutgers from 1981-1985, was elected to the NFA Hall of Fame in 2002.


1970′s: Rutgers Debate Society

The Rutgers Debate Society had at least two stints of existence, from 1976-1980 and some time up until 1974. The late-70′s Society was advised by Tom Harris and then Martin Friedman, both of the Communications Department, and the debate revival was spurred by Diana DiModica ’79. Lawrence Braun ’77 and Howard Epstein ’79 were listed as coaches of the team in their respective graduating years. 1978 appears to be the first year that Rutgers attended the National Forensic Association (NFA) National Championships, qualifying 9 people in a variety of events. Rich Faughnan ’80 was also listed as a State Champion speaker and James Pryor ’80 was also involved during his four years at Rutgers.


1956-1969: Rutgers Debate Team/Society

It is presumed that Rutgers continued to compete in the NDT policy format throughout the 1950′s and 1960′s. Rutgers performed well in NDT Mid-Atlantic competition in late 1960′s, finishing in the top ten in its region in 1968 and 1969, both years leading to NDT qualification. In 1968, a team of Joel Lewin ’69 and his partner made the quarterfinals at the NDT, with Lewin finishing as 9th speaker overall in the competition. The team in that era was coached by James Godwin.

This debate pamphlet recruiting freshmen for the 1965-1966 team indicates that debaters of this era are participating in tournaments rather than visiting individual schools for individual competitions. Source: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries


1924-1956: The Reager Years

Debate at Rutgers was revolutionized in 1924 under the direction of Richard Cranston Reager, who would direct debate for decades to come and be involved with the debate program until his death in 1956. He pioneered and implemented the “Reager System” of debate, encouraging on-the-fly thinking over canned speeches and replacing traditional elite teams of 2-4 debaters with vast squads of 100 or more debaters, offering everyone who wished to participate a chance to compete in at least one major debate per year. This transformed the impact of debating at Rutgers, taking the number of debaters trying out for the team from 2 in 1924 to over 200 in 1956, allowing all interested students to develop their speaking and analytical skills. Rutgers seniors voted debate the most worthwhile university activity every year from 1928-36, and Reager helped the team compile a roughly .700 winning percentage during his three decades at the university in well over a hundred debates a year.

Rutgers broke a team to octofinals at the very first NDT (National Debate Tournament) in 1947 at the US Military Academy in West Point, NY. The Rutgers pair of Anapol and Yawitz broke as the 14-seed, but were tabbed as the 15-seed to avoid hitting a team they’d hit in preliminary rounds. They dropped in octofinals.

Francis Raymond Lyons ’48 served as the Debate Coach from 1949-1950 after serving as the Coach of Freshman debating in 1948-49, his first year out of undergrad.

Richard Cranston Reager, Coach of debate at Rutgers for over 20 years following his arrival in 1924. Source: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries

The 1935-36 debating squad, with Richard P. McCormick '38, father of former University President Richard L. McCormick, featured in the middle row, third from right. Source: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries


1900-1924: Early Intercollegiate Competition

In the early part of the twentieth century, Rutgers formed a formidable team of top debaters, traveling to five to ten competitions each year, usually with other major local rival colleges, including NYU, Columbia, Penn, and of course Princeton. Bits and pieces are known from this period, including that Rutgers put together a legendary mulit-year winning streak in the late 1900′s and early 1910′s. Paul Robeson, legendary forerunner of civil rights and integration on the Rutgers campus, was a member of the debate team during his time at Rutgers from 1915-1919. The topics for debates in this era were usually decided months in advance and teams of 2-4 debaters, sometimes with an alternate, would prepare for weeks or months for a single public competition on the prescribed issue.

Paul Robeson's famous picture of his induction into Cap & Skull, a society unaffiliated with Rutgers debate, of which he was also a member.

The Rutgers Interscholastic Debating Committee, c. 1924. In 1915, Rutgers began hosting a debate league for competition amongst New Jersey high schools in addition to intercollegiate competition. Source: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries


1881: The First Intercollegiate Debate

According to Debating in the Colonial Chartered Colleges, an Historical Survey, 1642 to 1900, by David Potter (published 1942 by Columbia University Teacher’s College Publications), Rutgers and New York University apparently held the first intercollegiate debate in the United States in 1881. Prior to that, debates were held internally on individual campuses between rival debating, speaking, or philosophical societies belonging to the same school. In the century and a half since, intercollegiate rounds have become the norm, with most colleges winnowing down to just one debating society, union, or club, though some schools support multiple organizations that compete in differing debate styles. The 1881 topic is unknown and the report that this was the first intercollegiate debate seems to contradict older accounts of the King’s/Queen’s debates (see below), though it is likely those were the first debates of the 19th century in America between colleges.


1800′s: Unknown Unknowns

Between the King’s/Queen’s Debates in the late 1700′s and the famous debate with NYU in 1881, we can presume debate was still an important part of the Queen’s/Rutgers tradition. How important, however, or how debates were devised and coached, is still the subject of research to be conducted in the coming months and years.


1766-1799: Queens, Kings, and Revolutions

Rutgers was one of the original Colonial colleges in the United States, founded in 1766 as Queen’s College before the Revolutionary War. Two legends with probable veracity exist about debate from this time period. The first is that Queen’s enjoyed a rivalrous annual debating competition with King’s College in New York City, the school that would go on to become Columbia University. These King’s/Queen’s Debates were often discussed in the subsequent history of both schools, but only resurrected in 2011 by RUDU and the Columbia University Parliamentary Debate Society (CUPDS), both members of APDA. The second legend is that a lively four-hour on-campus debate was held in 1775 among Queen’s College students about taking up arms against the British government. The debaters were ultimately convinced to join the revolulion, leaving school to do so, and only returning two years later to reconsider the matter in 1777, reaching the same conclusion once more.


Sources: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries, APDA website, and historical lore of RUDU, all as researched and compiled by Storey Clayton.
If you have additional information about the history of debate at Rutgers, please e-mail us.

  1. “…RUDU was founded in 2001 by Evan Luce and an intrepid band of fellow Scarlet Knights.” So not cool! http://www.dailytargum.com/2.4987/debate-team-hosts-national-event-1.1510560

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