Harvard Versus Hard Knocks

Bard College is a liberal arts institution about a two-hour drive north of New York City. With about 2,000 undergrads, it’s understandable if you haven’t heard of it. And if you’re really into competitive debate, that’s probably still the case. Each year since 1947 — 2020 aside, due to the pandemic — colleges across the United States gather at the National Debate Tournament, probably the preeminent intercollegiate debate competition of the year. And if you look at the list of winners over the seventy-plus years of the NDT, you’ll see Bard College has a grand total of zero wins. 

Harvard — which you’ve probably heard of — has seven NDT victories. And they’re really proud of this. Here’s a blurb from the Harvard debate team’s official website

Committed to excellence in both competitive and educational achievement, Harvard Debate has won the National Debate Tournament (NDT) seven times, most recently in 2016, and finished second five times, since the tournament was first held in 1947. The NDT records show that Harvard Debate has been invited to attend the tournament every year since 1954 – a record of consistency unmatched by any other school. In recent years, Harvard Debaters have won every major national policy debate invitational. For two years in a row, in 2016 and 2017, Harvard won the Rex Copeland Award for the Top First Round At-Large Team at the NDT awarded to the team with the best individual record in the regular season.

Yeah, they take debate seriously.

But: so does Bard. Just not in the same way. In 2001, the college introduced the Bard Prison Initiative, a prisoner education program. Inmates in about a half-dozen New York-area prisons can enroll in the initiative and, if they complete the required coursework adequately, can earn a Bard diploma. According to the school, Bard “has issued roughly 50,000 credits and 550 degrees” through the initiative, and today, “it offers [inmates] more than 160 courses per academic year.” 

And inmates can also join the school’s debate club. Since 2013, incarcerated BPI enrollees can sign up for the Bard Prison Initiative Debate Union. According to Bard Debate’s website, the BPI debate program has about 20 members who, on a weekly basis, meet with the school’s debate co-chair “to explore debate topics, discuss research, and hold practice debates.”

But debate practice isn’t quite far enough — if you’re going to put in the work, you should get an opportunity to test your skills, even if you’re behind bars. So on occasion, the prison debate team also gets to compete against other schools. And the Bard team, it turns out, is good. The team is 10-2 in competitions.

In September of 2015, three of the inmates faced a notably tough foe: a trio from the much-ballyhooed Harvard debate team. If you’re thinking it wasn’t quite a fair fight, you’re right — the inmates were at a marked disadvantage. Putting aside the fact that the standard for admission to Harvard, academically at least, are much more stringent than admission to prison, the inmates simply had fewer resources at their disposal, too. As the Wall Street Journal notes, for those incarcerated, “preparing has its challenges. Inmates can’t use the Internet for research. The prison administration must approve requests for books and articles, which can take weeks.” And the three-judge panel for the debate did what they could to make sure they didn’t bias themselves toward the underdogs; Mary Nugent, one of the judges told the Journal “I don’t think we can ever judge devoid of context or where we are, but the idea they would win out of sympathy is playing into pretty misguided ideas about inmates. Their academic ability is impressive.”

And, you guessed it: the inmates won. The Harvard team took the loss in stride, stating in a post to Facebook that “there are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced.” 

But the real victory isn’t at the debate lectern; it’s what happens after the debating inmates are released from prison. As Bard explains, “the average annual cost for each person in a New York prison is $69,000, by state data, and about 40% of offenders return to custody within three years of release. The Bard Prison Initiative says its college program costs about $9,000 for each student yearly, and its alumni’s recidivism rate is less than 4%.”

Bonus fact: In 1954, a heated debate cost the United States one of its historical items. The U.S. Senate’s gavel is made of ivory and lacks a handle, making it a distinctive item even without its association with the legislative house. It had been using the same gavel since at least 1834 and, perhaps, since 1789, but as the Senate’s website notes, “by the 1940s, the old gavel had begun to deteriorate; in 1952 the Senate had silver pieces attached to both ends to limit further damage.” Unfortunately, continues the Senate’s page, “during a heated late-night debate in 1954, Nixon shattered the instrument” that had been in use for more than a century. Unable to fix it or find enough suitable ivory to replace it, the U.S. asked India for help; later that year, India gave the U.S. a new gavel, seen here

From the Archives: Naked at Harvard and Yale: Why Harvard and a bunch of other top schools had naked pictures of famous people in their archives.