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Haverford Debate Union logo. Courtesy of Jonah Paterson '26

The Revival of Haverford Debate

The story of debate organizations at Haverford stretches far back into the college’s past. One club’s activities were significant enough to garner coverage in a 1938 New York Times article reporting on the all-male team’s first competition against the Swarthmore women’s team. Even farther back in Haverfordian history is the Haverford Loganian Society—one of the first clubs formed in the college’s fledgling years. The Loganian society centered around the sharpening of literary and rhetorical skills, and took part in debates with nearby colleges like the University of Pennsylvania.

With such a rich history, it may come as a surprise to learn that debate at Haverford has floundered in the past few years. Despite participating in inter-collegiate debates, one recent iteration of Haverford debate appears to have quietly dissolved amid the 2020 pandemic, as evidenced by their since-deleted Facebook page. After this club’s demise, the only option for students at Haverford or Bryn Mawr to partake in debate was to join the Swarthmore team, where the late practice times and inconvenient commute made attending practices a difficult chore. Unsatisfied with this lack of an accessible debate club, several first-years with a shared interest in debate came together in the spring 2023 semester to form a new incarnation of the time-honored Haverford tradition—The Haverford Debate Union—creating the first debate organization in the Bi-Co in nearly three years.

Hoping to rekindle the student body’s interest in debate, the club aims to recruit students eager to hone their rhetorical skills in a supportive, intellectually stimulating environment that is open to students of all skill levels from Haverford and Bryn Mawr.  

While the relatively recent demise of their immediate predecessor may be discouraging, the members of this fledgling organization are optimistic regarding their future. President and founder Jonah Paterson ’26 attributed the untimely end of the old debate team to factors out of their control. “All activities that become institutions have an ebb and flow,” he said, adding that “it’s hard to keep engagement during COVID.” Nevertheless, he remains confident that this newest iteration of Haverford debate will not succumb to the same fate as those of the past, focusing on heightened publicity and club recruitment.

Intending to emphasize companionship and a fraternal bond among its members, the Haverford Debate Union began competing in American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) debate tournaments just a few weeks after its formation in February 2023. Haverford Debate Union competes against other colleges in student-run tournaments across the east coast, with the inaugural debate of the 2024 season beginning today at New York University. Usually taking place from midday Friday to Saturday evening, these student-run events feature a series of friendly-yet-intense debates between collegiate teams. After the initial rounds on Friday, in which participants alternate between competing in and judging rounds, visiting debaters are typically invited to spend the night in the hosting school’s dorms before continuing competition throughout the next day. 

The practice of debate and public speaking forms a key pillar of Haverford’s rich history in the liberal arts. Although the unfortunate occurrences of the past few years have caused this storied tradition to stumble, its newest incarnation is showing promise in preserving and continuing the deep and meaningful legacy of Haverford debate. “From what I’ve seen of our fairly novice team,” Paterson said, “we’ve got a lot of talent and we’ll get there.”

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