Early Beginnings: 18th and 19th centuries

Rutgers is the eighth oldest university in the United States, founded in 1766 as Queen’s College. Competitive debate organizations started sprouting in the late 19th century, so the earliest organizations where students would participate in debates were called literary societies. The first literary societies at Queen’s were the Athenian Society and the Polemical Society, both formed 1776. Their purpose is stated as follows:

“Politeness always conciliates affection, and if united to wisdom and virtue it ever commands respect. To acquire these accomplishments our Athenian Society was instituted and it certain has the tendency to purge the incorrect in our discourse….” The John Bogart Letters: Forty-two Letters Written to John Bogart …, Volume 1

The Athenian Society and others undoubtedly “purged the incorrect in discourse” by encouraging and participating in debates between members. But to leave the realm of literary societies there are to interesting urban legends about debate at Queen’s:

  • Queen’s enjoyed a rivalrous annual debating competition with King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City: 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) as members of APDA.
  • In 1775, a lively debate took place among Queen’s College students about taking up arms against the British government. The debaters were ultimately convinced to join the revolution, leaving school to do so, and only returning two years later to reconsider the matter in 1777, reaching the same conclusion once more.

Late 19th and early 20th centuries: From Literary Societies to Early Intercollegiate Competition

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From the 1913 Scarlet Letter, one of the many literary societies at Rutgers.

Debates tended to be informal gatherings between members of various literary societies on campus, until a trend began for literary societies to debate with others competitively. On May 6, 1881, the second intercollegiate forensic debate in the United States was held at Kirkpatrick Chapel between Rutgers (Peithessophian Society) and NYU (Philomathean Society). The first one is believed to have taken place the night before between Knox College and Illinois College.

The topic at Kirkpatrick Chapel was whether or not voting rights and suffrage should be limited or denied by any requirement other than age. Although it is not clear which side each team took, it is happily reported that Rutgers won the debate. In the decades to come, debate clubs and forensic organizations would begin to sprout over campus, and debate would no longer be limited to literary societies.

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The Rutgers Intercollegiate Debate Association in the Scarlet Letter, 1913

At the turn of the 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, UPenn, and of course Princeton. 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.

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From the 1900 Scarlet Letter, recounting a victorious debate between Rutgers and NYU

The topics for debates in this era were usually decided well 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. The topics for a debate between Rutgers University and New York University reported by The Triangle on January 18, 1899 were as follows:

  • “Is it expedient for the United States to take possession of the Philippine Islands?” (Rutgers won, with the other results not being clear)
  • “Is a political defensive alliance between the United States and Great Britain desirable at the present time?”
  • “Is a general disarmament of European powers practicable?”
  • “Ought the United States to annex Cuba?”

The Twentieth Century: Various Debate Organizations

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The 1935-1936 debate team, with Richard P. McCormick ’38, father of former Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick, featured in the middle row, third from right.

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.

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

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.

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. A recruitment pamphlet for the 1965-1966 year can be seen here.

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The 1959-1960 Rutgers Debate Team poses in the Scarlet Letter. They debated on the NDT national topic that year, concerning giving Congress the power to override the Supreme Court’s decisions
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A picture of the Rutgers Debate Society, 1977

The Rutgers Debate Society had at least two stints of existence, from 1976-1980 and some time up until 1974. 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.

The Rutgers Forensic Society existed 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. J.G. Harrington, who competed for Rutgers from 1981-1985, was elected to the NFA Hall of Fame in 2002.

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The Forensic Society in the 1984-85 Scarlet Letter

1990’s: (The First) Rutgers University Debate Union

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The Debate Union poses for the 1992-93 Scarlet Letter

 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. It is suspected that other teams broke periodically and this Debate Union enjoyed moderate success and respect on APDA. This group was founded in 1991 and disbanded by about 1997.

2001-2009: The Rutgers Debate Union Refounded

Members of the 2004-2005 Rutgers University Debate Union prepare trophies to be awarded at the conclusion of the 2005 Rutgers Invitational.

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

2009-Present Day: Debate Renaissance


The Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU) is currently enjoying perhaps the most successful period of competitive forensics in the university’s 250-year history. The team went from finishing 24th in the league in 2009-2010 to finishing as 5th overall in College of the Year (COTY) in 2010-2011. Team Members Reiss and Bomeisl went on to break at the National Championships, the first time in APDA history Rutgers did so. The next year, 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).

Since 2010, RUDU has enjoyed overwhelming success in the APDA circuit. Sean Leonard became the first Rutgers debater to be the president of APDA, and all of the team’s recent awards can be seen on the Awards page.

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