Rutgers Debate Union Trumps Harvard

Rutgers Debate Union Trumps Harvard

Team transitions from underdog to ranking third nationally in four years

Members of the debate union Ashley Novak and Chris Bergman.
Members of the debate union Ashley Novak and Chris Bergman.
Credit: Nick Romanenko
When senior Chris Bergman joined the Rutgers Debate Union in the fall of ’09 it was barely limping along with about a dozen students.

“It was a debate club in name only,” said Bergman, 21, who graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in economics. “It also was extremely disorganized.  It didn’t go to competitions, and it didn’t put very much effort in training.”

Fast-forward four years, and the Debate Union – now with more than 60 members on the New Brunswick Campus and led by former Brandeis University star-debater-turned-coach Storey Clayton – is ranked third in the nation.

“It’s certainly been an exponential rise since then,” Clayton said.


During their ascent through the American Parliamentary Debate Association rankings, the Debate Union has left dozens of teams in their dust. But Bergman and Clayton agree the sweetest success so far was surpassing Harvard University.

“For a state school with a relatively new program in debate, it’s really a sign of arriving. It sort of cements our accomplishments and shows that the last couple of years aren’t a fluke,” said Clayton on topping Harvard in February after team members racked up enough points to take first and third place at tournaments hosted by the University of Albany and Franklin & Marshall College respectively.

Rutgers Debate Union
Member of the Rutgers Debate Union with Storey Clayton, far left.
“Four years ago we never thought we’d be taken seriously at a national level. It’s satisfying to know that we proved the initial skeptics – even within our team – wrong.”

Rutgers’ winning strategy proves there’s strength in numbers.

“I think one of the big advantages our team has is we don’t make cuts or pare down. So our team is competitive with some of the biggest teams in the league,” said Clayton who saw this approach work at his alma mater. “It gives our team a little more depth.”

This isn’t the case at many other schools, where the teams choose to thin their herd. Some far-flung schools do it to trim travel costs. Others may make cuts for the sake of prestige or to focus on grooming five to 10 top debaters early on. Clayton hopes he won’t ever have to turn away anyone interested in the debate union.

“It’s very hard to predict early on who’s going to put enough time and energy into debate to rise to the top and who has a good learning curve,” he said.

Now only trailing Yale University and Brandeis, Clayton said the team is focused on qualifying more members to compete at the North American Championships - where they took 6th place last year. So far, seven members have accumulated the 14 points required to participate at the April 19-21 event hosted by the University of Maryland.

“We’re not favored to win, but we’re certainly among the teams who have a shot at winning nationals,” said Clayton, who estimates three more members may qualify to compete before then. “That would be a crowning achievement.”

It’d be icing on the proverbial cake for Bergman, 21, whose crowning achievement – landing a job before earning his diploma – came early this year.
In September, Moody’s Financial Investments offered to parlay Bergman’s internship into a full-time position in commercial mortgage-backed securities, where, come July, he’ll help rate bonds for commercial properties.

The senior from West Windsor credits the Debate Union with sharpening his communication skills and boosting his confidence, both of which, he said, gave him an edge over the competition in this brutal job market.

“Absolutely it was a factor in being asked back,” he said of his debate experience. “Especially since the ratings industry is a very collaborative effort where people try to persuade people which rating is correct.”

Clayton is quick to point out that the ability to “think on one’s feet” is a resume booster regardless a student’s career goals.

“That’s always my pitch to new people each year. The ability to communicate effectively, almost any employer is going to put to that on their desired list of attributes,” Clayton said.  “There are very few ways you can tangibly point to examples of effectively communicating with people, and debate is one of those things.”