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Emory’s Barkley Forum to host nation’s premier debate tournament
Shreyas Rajagopal (left) and Grace Kessler

Practicing mock debates helps seniors Shreyas Rajagopal (left) and Grace Kessler prepare for the tournament, set for April 4-8 on Emory’s Atlanta campus.

The National Debate Tournament (NDT) will return to Emory’s Atlanta campus for its 78th annual competition, April 4-8. The NDT will be welcomed back by Barkley Forum, the university’s nationally ranked intercollegiate public policy debate program, which also hosted the tournament in 2003 and 2012.

This year, 78 teams will compete, the maximum number allowed by tournament rules. The students on these two-person teams are among the nation’s top competitive debaters and will represent 46 colleges and universities.

Emory will field three teams, the maximum per school. The teams are seniors Grace Kessler and Shreyas Rajagopal; senior Henry Mitchell and junior Bella Piekut; and first-year student Daniel Gallagher and junior Margaret Hecht.

“We’re absolutely delighted and profoundly honored to host this year’s National Debate Tournament,” says Mikaela Malsin, director of debate for the Barkley Forum within Campus Life. “Being entrusted with the nation’s most prestigious tournament reflects the esteem in which the college debate community holds Emory and our debate program.”

A Barkley Forum alum from Emory’s Class of 2010, Malsin returned to Emory after serving as director of debate at Georgetown University. Earlier, in addition to coaching debate at Emory, she coached at Wake Forest University and the University of Georgia, where she earned a master’s degree and PhD, respectively. In 2021, she was named Barkley Forum’s director of debate. 

Tradition of excelling

Barkley Forum will compete this year after taking home the tournament’s top honors three years in the past — 1996, 2000 and 2007. Only five other institutions have won more NDT championships among the more than two dozen schools that have claimed the title in the tournament’s 77-year history.

Today, the Barkley Forum is recognized as one of the nation’s most successful intercollegiate debate programs, having competed successfully in hundreds of tournaments over more than 50 years.

Under Malsin’s leadership, Barkley Forum carries on its tradition of training outstanding debaters and winning tournaments.

The 2023-24 season saw Emory bring home championships from three major debate tournaments: the Franklin R. Shirley Classic at Wake Forest University, Kathryn Klassic at California State University-Long Beach and Texas Longhorn Classic at the University of Texas-Austin.

This season, Emory’s program is ranked number one overall by the Cross Examination Debate Association and number one in varsity by the American Debate Association, two preeminent organizations promoting intercollegiate policy debate.

Since 1967, Barkley Forum has claimed six American Debate Association titles, three National Debate Tournament titles, two Cross Examination Debate Association titles, three Copeland Award winners, nine first-year Novice Nationals titles and eight top speaker awards at championship tournaments.

Long history of collegiate debate

While the National Debate Tournament’s roots reach back to 1947 when it was established by the United States Military Academy at West Point, Barkley Forum’s origins stretch back even further — to 1837, the year after Emory was founded.

“Debate has been a vital part of our university culture for nearly two centuries, since the Phi Gamma Literary Society began debating current events in Oxford, Georgia, on Emory’s first campus,” says Malsin.

She adds, “The Barkley Forum carries on that tradition as a legacy Emory program that has achieved extraordinary success through the hard work and dedication of some of the most talented student debaters and debate staff in the world.”

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