Michael H. Suo ’15, can talk at a rate of about 300 words per minute. Brad G. Bolman ’15 chatters at an even faster 320 words per minute. As the lead duo on the Harvard Policy Debate Team, known simply as ‘Harvard Bo Su,’ they have employed various techniques to be able to speak with such rapidity. They speak with a pen in their mouth pressed against their tongue, over-enunciate, read words backwards, or insert an extra word between every other. This is what it takes to survive the intense, timed argumentation they must fire off during days-long national debate tournaments.
The Harvard Policy Debate Team is fundamentally different from the popular form of political debate that might come to mind—such as the 2012 presidential debate—which Suo referred to as “mostly fluff.” In this competitive realm, debate is a sport, or perhaps an art, in which a pair of debaters argue for, or against, an issue in a series of rounds over the course of several days.
Founded in 1892, Harvard’s team is one of the best in the country. Each year, it brings a handful of top debaters to national tournaments around the country to compete in grueling face-offs with rival teams on topics ranging from presidential war powers (this year’s topic), to the Arab Spring, to the size of nuclear arsenals.
According to the Copeland ranking, Suo and Bolman are currently Harvard’s top team and the number three debate team in the nation, following Georgetown University and Northwestern University which ranked as the number one and two teams, respectively. This year, the Harvard team is shooting for first place. Suo and Bolman talked philosophy and strategy over a Scorpion Bowl at the popular team hangout, Hong Kong Restaurant—or, as it is commonly known, the Kong. Suo came dressed in a conservative dark blue sweater and a light blue collared shirt; Bolman slipped in a few minutes later in a graphic T-shirt and thick-rimmed, Ray-Ban glasses.
Though the two debaters appear markedly different, they often seemed to think in synchrony. They easily answered questions directed at the other and provided running commentary on one another’s remarks.
Bolman initially laughed off the idea of debating in high school; it was his mother who pushed him into a debate camp. “She paid me $70 and a Mars Volta CD… and so that’s why I went to debate camp,” he recalled.
Suo started in middle school, along with a friend. “It’s kind of fun to just, like, argue with people,” Suo noted. The pair utilizes an unusual strategy in their debates. Rather than using typical policy technique—which is fact-based—Bolman and Suo use more theoretical, philosophical arguments. This tends to throw off their opponents, who are not used to this style of debate.
They practice in a small room at the Student Organization Center at Hilles, filled with fans, mismatched couches, and at least one crock-pot, and lined with plaques and trophies. The team members meet there with one or more of their nine coaches at a time, each of whom has various specialities. On Saturday afternoon, Yunhan Xu ’17 met there with two of the team’s assistant coaches, Harvard Medical School professor David J. Glass and Dylan N. Quigley, to go over the presentation of her argument. They worked with her solely on her delivery—timing her, having her try it slower, faster, with less breathing, and “a little bit of swag,” as Glass put it.
The head “Coach of Debate” is Dallas G. Perkins Jr., who has had this position since 1979. Suo and Bolman are full of stories about him, and shared a sampling of their repertoire with us—related through fond imitations of his hearty, Southern accent.
“Dallas Perkins is the last king in America,” Suo stated simply. The way Suo and Bolman tell it, Perkins came from a Texan family that opened one of the first liquor stores in the nation during the Prohibition era. After getting a degree from Harvard Law School, according to Bolman, Dallas won a one million dollar lawsuit, after which he went into coaching.
Perkins’s own take on his career was far more modest. “I have done some things to earn a living while I coach debate. None of them are particularly fascinating,” he said. In his version of the story, he debated during college for Harvard’s rival team, Georgetown, and won several major tournaments. He then got a degree from Harvard Law School and went on to coach former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers as a debate coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before being recruited as coach by the Harvard team. Perkins is effusive when he discusses the Harvard team. “Working with Harvard students is an honor and a privilege not to be sneezed at,” he said. “I love the game and argument of dialectic that we are playing.”
A game, perhaps, but one with high stakes. The Harvard Policy Debate Team has a proud legacy, but they have a challenging year ahead. Harvard has the chance to win the upcoming National Debate Tournament in March—one of the main debating events in the nation—for the first time in over twenty years. Last year, they were eliminated in the octofinals, behind rival teams Georgetown and Northwestern.
But their competition is not resting on its laurels. Georgetown coach Jonathan D. Paul said, “Our goals are simple. We want to win every debate we are in and we want to have fun in that process.” And they are most definitely looking out for Suo and Bolman. “It is always tough to debate Harvard and we really have to work hard to prepare for those debates,” Paul said.
Suo and Bolman’s coaches are filled with high hopes and confidence for the pair, however. “We have beat Georgetown before...and we expect to do so again. Regularly,” Perkins said emphatically. “I think [Suo and Bolman] are of the caliber of team that has the chance to win,” he added.