Hosting a national debate

Longwood president says area’s history helped it land the Kaine-Pence match-up

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On Oct. 4, Virginia will host its first U.S. vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville. To have a Virginia senator as one of the candidates is a bonus no one counted on in summer 2015. That was when Longwood’s president, W. Taylor Reveley IV, realized the university might have a chance at hosting the nationally televised debate. 

The match-up of Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia vs. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is expected to boost the number of people traveling to Farmville.

While officials can’t predict, in terms of actual numbers, Kaine’s influence on the turnout, Farmville’s acting chief of police, Andy Ellington, says, “I think it makes a difference. Tim’s a well-known guy … I think a lot of people want to be here in person to see him in the debate.”

Officials, from Farmville Mayor David Whitus to Sheri McGuire, executive director of the Small Business Development Center, say rooms within a 50-mile radius have been almost completely sold out since the debate venue was announced in September 2015. A lot of the visitors will be campaign operatives and media. Col. Robert Beach, chief of Longwood’s police force, and other officials expect as many as 2,000 members of the media from across the U.S. and the world.

The international exposure should be a positive, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst and professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“The more attention drawn to Virginia in 2016, the more it will be good for Virginia business, and Virginia has never fallen short as a tourism destination.”

The Oct. 4 debate will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, as well as all cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. It will air from 9 pm. to 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time.  Elaine Quijano, anchor, CBSN, CBS News, will moderate.

Virginia is a state of many firsts.  Reveley, the nation’s first third-generation college president, notes that it was the site of the first modern presidential debate in the sense that we now know it — in 1976 at Phi Beta Kappa Hall at the College of William and Mary. Reveley’s father, W. Taylor Reveley III, is currently president of W&M, and his grandfather was president of Hampden-Sydney College.

Reveley has been known to remind undergraduate students of the historical context of the ’76 presidential debate at W&M between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. “Then,” he said, “in ’92 the town hall format of debates was inaugurated at the University of Richmond when Bill Clinton and Ross Perot and George Bush the elder debated.”

He’s sure Longwood’s historical context was an asset in its selection as a venue this year.  Referring to “the range of operatic work necessary … to make one of these kinds of events really work well,” he said the commission “really cares about the basic story of the place they’re going to, and I think Longwood’s story and Farmville’s story they found particularly compelling ... 

“[T]his is one of the 100 oldest institutions of higher learning in the country; and, in a really poetic way, the last days and hours of the Civil War played out at the north end of Longwood’s campus, and the modern Civil Rights movement began in great measure at the southern end of our campus at what’s now the Moton Museum but was Moton High School in 1951.”

The debate’s legacy will likely be a blending of the president’s vision for the school’s role in a democracy and an increased number of donors to the university — up 24 percent for 2015 over 2014.  Virginia Business spoke with Reveley by telephone in August.

Virginia Business: Longwood’s hosting of the single vice-presidential debate on October 4 is a coup for the university. How did the idea for hosting the debate come about?
Reveley: The idea really lodged in my mind in fall 2014 when class discussion turned to whether that might be something we could do at Longwood ... Because of my familiarity with the [presidential] debate process from my time [as managing director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center], I actually got to thinking about it … I decided Longwood should be in the mix because it fit into our goals of recognizing citizenship in a democracy … and [of potentially giving] Longwood momentum deep into the future.  When we got back from the holidays in January 2015, we got in touch with the Commission on Presidential Debates and began to wind our way through the process.

VB: How did the process come down to Longwood’s being the final choice for the vice-presidential debate by the commission?  
Reveley: From the initial number of about a hundred institutions that expressed interest for hosting any of the four presidential debates, the process winnowed down to about 15 or 16 that got into the substantive back and forth with the commission.  That played out in depth through the summer of ’15 [to the point that] by late summer I had a sense that we might really be in the hunt. As it got to late September, I was sitting at my desk thinking about Longwood’s master plan for our facilities, which we had been working on independent of the debate for a long, long time, when the call came in from Mike McCurry, co-chair of the Presidential Debate Commission. Mike has a great sense of humor, and when I picked up the phone he said without any preface, “Are you busy on October 4th next year?”

VB: How does the commission decide on venues? What are the requirements, including the financial commitment for the production?
Reveley: The commission has been honing how these things work for 30 years now.  At a threshold level, it’s the size of the venue, parking for satellite trucks, security considerations, whether there are enough and the right kind of accommodations for the candidates, whether the camera angles work, whether the IT infrastructure is robust enough.  Beyond this threshold, the commission looks at the spirit of an institution — student energy and enthusiasm and the history of the place …  The themes here [Civil War and Civil Rights] feel especially relevant today ...  At a funding level, each institution pays $2 million toward the production cost.  Inclusive of that, we expect Longwood to spend a total of $5.5 million — for campus preparation, infrastructure improvements, academic and public programming … and the $150,000 to $200,000 in advertising we’ve spent up to this point — all of which comes from a fund set aside for special projects such as this.

VB: Do the parties’ choices for presidential and vice-presidential candidates have a bearing on security issues?
Reveley: Yes … Practically speaking, it’s always a little bit easier in an election year in which there’s not an incumbent … because security around a sitting president or a sitting vice president is obviously at another scale than for candidates.  So although it is a little bit easier from a security standpoint this year, we’re taking every precaution. From the bigger standpoint, what is always neat about the vice-presidential election is that the … vice-presidential candidates, while known to political insiders, have a freshness to the broad, general public that is really alluring …

VB: Have the thoughts of protestors, potential violence and 24-hour security kept you grounded in reality — compared to your visionary ideal of teaching about democracy through the debate?
Reveley: Yeah, I always think about the students who are in college today — who were born in the mid-to-late-’90s and who have never known anything except the tribulations of terror and war … Their first real memory at a national scale is 9/11, and they’ve seen recession and news like we’ve seen across the country and across the world this summer. In some ways [this event] is a celebration of democracy, but it’s grounded in the reality of the troubled world that we’ve got right now … and democracy only works to the extent that it can navigate its way through the troubles we face. We … the Secret Service, state police, Farmville police, our own highly decorated police force here at Longwood are intensely mindful of the public-safety aspects …

VB:  What preparations began to be set in place once Longwood was selected? What did you do first when McCurry asked you if you were busy on October 4th?
Reveley: We’ve always wanted to make two big things happen. We really want this intergalactic TV event that 50 or 60 million people or more will tune into on October 4th … So in that regard the first thing was getting to a lot of the technical details I mentioned earlier, [such as] the IT infrastructure.

VB: What was the second thing you wanted to achieve?
Reveley: The second big thing was to ensure that it bears on what we are otherwise doing … that it fits into our strategic goals.  A great example of that is what we are doing with our curriculum this fall around the debate because we are in the midst of reforming our general-education curriculum altogether to make citizenship the north star for it.  So to have the chance in essence to pilot this fall a number of courses that are examples of the way we might handle our curriculum in the future has been great for us. 

VB: What has been the impact thus far on the university as a result of being the debate site?
Reveley: We had a really nice jump in applications already from the spring of ’15 to the spring of ’16. The jump [was an increase] of about 11 percent, and now that we have that we’ve got the groundwork in place to make an even bigger jump in that regard next year.

VB: You have ...  around 5,000 students. I’ve read that by 2025 you plan for it to be 6,000. Is that correct?
Reveley: Yeah, that’s an important number for us because that’s as big as we would like to get.  So much of the magic at Longwood is the scale of the place and the interaction between our faculty and our students. If we can grow slightly — and organically — that’s our real hope.

VB: You’ve mentioned the commission is looking for student energy and enthusiasm to bring this all about.  What specific roles will students have at the debate?
Reveley: It ranges broadly. At this point we’ve got more than a thousand people — students, alumni, faculty, staff, residents of the town — who have registered to volunteer … to help with the media, to help with the candidates, help with really just any aspect of the work … One of the neatest volunteer opportunities is that we’ll need a few students to be the actual stand-ins for the candidates … making sure the camera angles are really just so as the stage is getting into its final shape … which is a pretty neat experience for somebody.

VB: Does the debate figure into your overall strategy for engaging alumni and others philanthropically for the university’s growth and improvements?
Reveley: It absolutely does  … We’re the third-oldest public university in Virginia after William and Mary and U.Va. … It really has had a catalytic effect among the alumni … Beyond increasing the number of donors, we’ve grown the annual, smaller contributions to a record year this past year, too.  It was up about 14 percent.

VB: When you took office in 2013, the university was completing a $41 million fundraising campaign, the largest in its history.  In terms of dollar amounts, what is your fundraising goal at this point?
Reveley: We’ve certainly tried to keep the juggernaut rolling  …  and we’ve raised about $15 million since that $41 million campaign closed, but we don’t have immediate plans to begin a new campaign ... But we have been putting this real emphasis on increasing the number of total donors each year, and likewise have been putting some real emphasis on increasing the number of contributions we have right into the academic heart of the institution.

VB: What is Longwood doing to try to hold down increases in tuition?
Reveley: We’ve held increases to well below 3 percent for each of my three years here … but from the philanthropic standpoint, the real key into the far future is to get scholarship funding so that college — Longwood — is always affordable.

VB: What are your goals for matching the investment in a college education with today’s job market?
Reveley: I think college always, and certainly today, is a strong mix of a public good and a private good … a public good in that college is essential for a free society… and a private good in [preparing] individual graduates for their future careers … I think in some ways public perception has gotten out of sync with purest economic reality. The New York Times had a good story [June 3, 2016] in which it [with Google] asked the question, “If unemployment for those with a high-school education is 7 percent today, what is unemployment for those with a bachelor’s degree?” In asking that question, the Times found that their readers were wildly off in the guesses they made, that they would guess … double that, triple that, for those with college degrees … The reality is that for those ages 25-34, with a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate today is just 2 percent, which is really striking when you stop and think about it …

VB: What are Longwood’s retention and graduation rates as of 2016?
Reveley: Retention is 81 percent from freshman fall to sophomore fall.  The six-year graduation rate is about 68 percent; the four-year rate, 53 percent... [As] a society and [as individual] institutions, we have to give all of our creativity to figuring out how to make the path from freshman year to graduation a stronger one.

VB: What about the argument that online courses can accomplish much of what a bricks-and-mortar college does at a more economical cost?
Reveley: The quip that goes through my mind is to think about Thanksgiving dinner. You could come up with a densely packed energy bar with as many calories and as many nutrients in it as a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but is that the same thing?  I would certainly say it’s not, that much of the power of residential liberal arts education lies in the way that it works, the way that it plays out, and the process, the four years of maturing into adulthood — the time with roommates, the time with professors, the 2 a.m. bull sessions. Those all are what contribute to the habits of democracy; and if we were to somehow bypass those and focus narrowly on skills training … we might for a time have a measure of economic growth … but we would lose the ability of people to learn to be citizens of a republic.

VB: Is Longwood reinventing its mission?
Reveley: I think it’s more being true to the deep essence of the place. I’m lucky to have this long perspective on the institution through my family. My great-grandmother was a Longwood alum, class of 1940, and my great-grandfather was the chair of the biology department here … so I know in a deep way that Longwood has been true to its liberal arts roots through the centuries … People frequently think it’s a teachers college that evolved into a university.  In reality it was a liberal arts institution in the most classic sense for 50 years before it was a teachers college.  When it was founded in 1839, it was a very progressive thing to be educating women, let alone educating women in Latin, Greek, music and mathematics … the four original courses at Longwood. We really are here to prepare a rising generation, first and foremost, to be citizens and then to be ready for their careers.

VB: What role do you have at the debate as the event unfolds on the evening of Oct. 4th?
Reveley: I’ll welcome everyone, which will be very nice.  I’m very much looking forward to working closely with the commission and its leaders and staff on preparations … Then I’ll basically enjoy watching the opera unfold.

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