BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) – Is the humidity in the hall just right? Are there enough hotel rooms nearby to hold the hordes of campaign staffers and journalists? Will the candidates’ dressing rooms be big enough?
Landing a presidential debate requires painstaking adherence to a lengthy checklist, not to mention millions of dollars. Colleges and universities big and small have held the grand events over the years, and Lynn University is the latest small liberal arts school to play host. Officials say what set them apart wasn’t name recognition, but a willingness to transform campus life to pull it off.
The university has invested about $5 million in upgrades to prepare for the arrival of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Monday. New entrances to campus have been built, and the computer network has been upgraded. Sports teams have been displaced, performances have been delayed, and faculty and staff members have been flooded with added responsibilities.
But most on campus seem to relish the opportunity, and Lynn has added dozens of classes inspired by the debate, developed a debate curriculum being used by students from kindergarten through high school around the country, and is hosting more election-themed events than administrators can count. Everything from the books freshmen are assigned (First debate moderator Jim Lehrer’s “Tension City” is required reading) to the marketing campaign of the admissions office (“What the World is Coming To”) to the swag on sale in the bookstore has been affected.
“One of the things we found most appealing about Lynn is its willingness to just dive in,” said Peter Eyre, a senior adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates. “They have embraced this whole notion that the debate is a larger commitment to education.”
To be considered as a debate host, schools must submit expansive proposals detailing their adherence to countless criteria, from the humidity in the hall (not more than 50 percent) to the number of nearby hotel rooms (at least 3,000) to the size of the candidates’ dressing rooms (750 square feet).
Guidelines dictate everything from the precise dimensions of the stage to the number of parking spots to the carpeting on the floor. The application comes with a $7,500 fee and selected sites must pay $1.65 million to the Commission on Presidential Debates to cover costs.
The selected colleges have been all sizes, all over the country, public and private.
“It’s sort of all over the map,” said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who wrote “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.”
As for Lynn, administrators had initially figured they would be lucky to land a vice presidential event after a bid to host a gubernatorial debate fell through two years ago. Until now, the school’s national exposure was limited mostly to tragedy: four students and two professors on a charity trip died in the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010.
The school has about 2,100 students hailing from across the U.S. and 78 other countries. Lynn is a relatively young institution at 50 years old, and those on campus are taking its low name recognition in stride: T-shirts for sale in the bookstore say, “We’ve never heard of you either.”
“This is a moment we’ve been waiting for,” said Kevin Ross, the university’s president. “We’ve been seeking and searching for a moment where we could tell the story of Lynn.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, debates were often held at non-academic venues, such as the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and the Public Auditorium in Cleveland. The debate commission was formed in 1988 to oversee the events and, since, has emphasized holding them on college campuses. No non-college sites have been chosen since 2000.
Ross acknowledged there are far cheaper ways to boost a school’s profile, but he said the debate offers an incomparable opportunity not just for exposure, but to transform life on campus. A number of schools, including two of this year’s picks (Centre College in Danville, Ky., and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.) have hosted more than once, though others have never applied again.
“It’s a major disruption to campus life,” said Craig LaMay, a Northwestern University professor who co-authored “Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future.” “I think that public relations benefit is quite small, especially when measured against the cost.”
Regardless, Lynn is abuzz in excitement.
Marcheta Wright, an international relations professor at Lynn, developed two new courses that touch on the debates, and says the event comes up all the time in classes. She says students have taken pride in seeing their school’s profile raised, but have also found themselves asking new questions and exploring new areas of study because of it.
“It’s going to give them kind of bragging rights at the very least,” she said. “But it’s also getting them to think broader. It’s getting them to think beyond themselves and their courses and their own personal trials and tribulations.”
Sophia Barrett, a 21-year-old senior, said the debate has transformed her final year at Lynn. She went on school-sponsored trips to the Republican and Democratic political conventions as part of her journalism minor, she’s been chosen to be an usher on the big night, and she finds her classmates taking an interest in the political process she didn’t observe in her first three years.
“People who normally wouldn’t be talking about it are talking,” she said.
Ross darts in and out of meetings as the final preparations are made. He’s eager for the national broadcast to begin and Lynn’s name to echo through living rooms around the country. For now, though, the excitement is mixing with a dose of fear.
“It was supposed to inspire people,” he said. “Now it’s just scaring the hell out of us.”
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