Debate Association meets with alumni

Boasting past members such as William Howard Taft 1878, William F. Buckley ’50 and David Frum ’82, the Yale Debate Association has always eagerly awaited the chance to meet distinguished alumni.

That chance finally came this past weekend.

“So many people have invested so much time in this,” the YDA’s development director, Erin Miller ’09, said of the organization. “But they consider it a dead connection after they graduate.”

Although the organization dates back to 1908, the YDA was largely disconnected from its past. But on Saturday, when 60 alumni assembled at Linsley-Chittenden Hall for the YDA’s centennial reunion, the decades-long bridge was crossed. The gathering — a project that Miller and her YDA classmates took up last year — was the first successful attempt in recent memory to bring past and present members together.

With events including a tribute lunch for their former coach and an alumni feature debate between Frum and Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, debaters of the recent and not-so-recent past had tempting reasons to return to campus. And despite the minor changes that the team has undergone, debaters from the class of 1949 to 2007 agreed on the lasting bond that has held the team together throughout the years.

Looking Back, For the First Time

In her introductory remarks, Miller said her “newfound curiosity about YDA history” was stirred by the realization that John Kerry ’66 was a former debate member. The YDA was then inspired to find others who had stood at the podium before them; their pride and interest in the history of the team compelled them to plan the reunion, she said.

“It’s useful to have those types of contact,” Miller said. Especially, she added, since current members have a strong desire to learn from the experience of past members — many of whom work in law.

Yale has been debating competitively since the 1890s, and established a formal debate association called the Triangulars with Harvard and Princeton in 1908.

“They tended to arrange the tournaments ad hoc through connections between the coaches,” Miller said. “It was a lot more elite than it is now.”

This began to change in 1922 as Yale organized an intercollegiate debating league of nine schools. The first national debate tournament was held at West Point in 1947. Since then, the YDA has undergone a change in debating styles — from “three on three style” to teams of two. For the YDA, this meant a transition in argument, focused more on logic and rhetoric rather than style and extensive research.

No change in style, however, could take away from the basics.

“[Debate] has given me ways to structure my thinking and articulate my thoughts in a capacity that I didn’t have before,” said Andrew Rohrbach ’09, the current president of the YDA.

As the league grew, the team also had to sacrifice funding for a coach in order to finance travel for tournaments off campus.

Until 1979, the University employed a professional coach to train members of the YDA. During the reunion, members reminisced about their second — and last — coach Rollin Osterweis, who worked with the team from 1948 to 1979. Well known for his class, History and Practice of American Oratory, Osterweis was also rigorous in his work with the YDA.

“He touched a lot of people,” Ned Cabot ’60 said. “He was the only faculty member that most students had ever visited at home.”

After Oserweis, Miller said, attempts to find a new coach fell through. These days, former YDA members currently at Yale Law School help organize practices and judge debates.

“[The alumni’s] experience with debate was very different from ours,” Rohrbach said, “but it’s also very continuous.”

Preserved Traditions

Today, the YDA consists of 47 members, with a core of about 25 particularly active members. Last year, YDA won eight of the 27 tournaments in which they competed. On the international scene, the YDA is currently the second-ranked American team, according to the APDA Web site.

“Alumni always ask us whether we’ve upheld the tradition of excellence or whether we’ve just kind of dropped the ball,” Rohrbach said. Clearly, he said, it is the former.

In recent years, the YDA has also become much more involved in international debate, which uses the British Parliamentary Debate style. Members of the YDA said that they have attended numerous tournaments throughout the world — in Ireland, Thailand, Canada and the United Kingdom.

With all the traveling they do together, YDA members past and present often grow extremely close to one another, Rohrbach and Miller said. On Saturday, alumni recounted stories of running into a deer on the way back from a tournament, debating with an open fly and dancing erotically during inductions.

Cabot reminisced about the time he debated at Wellesley College.

“The resolution was that women prefer death before dishonor,” he said. “We took the negative.”

Beyond the professional relationships and networking opportunities that YDA provides, many past and present debaters said they are grateful for the personal relationships they fostered through the team.

“From the beginning there has always been a very tightly knit group of people,” Miller said. As opposed to other extracurricular activities such as the Frisbee Club, she offered, debate allows people to “bond in a deeper manner.”

Most alumni interviewed said that they met their closest friends at Yale through the YDA. And while several alumni generally labeled debaters as insane, borderline narcissistic and extremely competitive, they also described them as brilliant, motivated and like-minded.

“We argued all the time,” Cabot said. “Debate was just the formal medium.”

Cabot added that the current YDA members “sound like they have more fun.” But when asked about specific memories, many of the members quipped that their stories were unfit to print.

The last event of the night was a set of humorous debates, which was a longtime tradition between Yale and Princeton that ended in the 1950s. The resolution on Saturday was on the effects of technology. Debaters concluded that the introduction of Wikipedia and Blackberries has not significantly changed their experiences.

“The struggle continues for men on the debate team to find attractive women,” Matthew Wansley ’07 said. “And technology hasn’t helped!”

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