Archivist’s Angle: A History of Speech and Debate at NYU
June 15, 2017
In the 1905 The Violet yearbook, Charles William Gerstenberg was voted “Best Debater in College (No one else in sight.),” and lauded with the descriptor: “E’en though vanquished, he could still argue.” Since NYU’s founding, the Eucleian and Philomathean literary societies had held debates, as well as orations and readings, and Founders’ Day exercises often included debate. Gerstenberg is among the earliest mentioned debaters in the University’s yearbooks, and following his notable beginning, debate at NYU took off with intercollegiate and inter-class debates increasing in mention, frequency, and popularity. The 1907 edition of The Violet included a full page devoted to intercollegiate debate, detailing the mentally taxing months of work in researching and refining an argument for an hour-and-a-half of debate, and the intangible reward “far above the glory of a favorable decision...of the foundations laid in the preparation for, and in the actual encounter of, the debate itself” that prepares the debater for all manner of post-college struggles.
By the late 1920s, the debating societies at both the Heights and Washington Square campuses had incorporated a chapter of Tau Kappa Alpha, the intercollegiate forensics and debating honors society. The general debating schedule had vastly increased by this time as well, from one or two intercollegiate debates per year to, in 1934, over “one-hundred forensic contests, [in which] NYU debaters were victorious in all but three of these events” (The Violet, 1934). 1934 also marked the start of an NYU-specific honors society, the Gavel Club, which served as a prerequisite to membership in Tau Kappa Alpha.
1940 brought a significant change in the life of NYU’s debate team; for the first time, both undergraduate campuses at Washington Square and University Heights fielded their own teams, with the Washington Square College team becoming co-ed.
Today, the Parliamentary Debate Union and the NYU policy debate team affiliated with the Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA) carry the torch of forensics and debate at NYU, the former hosting the 2016 American Parliamentary Debate Association’s National Championship, and the latter winning the 2017 Texas Swings tournament at the University of Texas. The CEDA debate team of 70 students have risen in regional and national tournaments throughout the years and became the first Northeast team to win a national intercollegiate CEDA Championship in 2003, before Harvard or Dartmouth. The team’s first coach Will Baker became the first African American policy director to secure a national championship since Melvin B. Tolson of Wiley College in 1935.