Wake Forest Summer Filled with Debate Preparations

Wake Forest Presidential Debate logoSummers are typically spent at Wake Forest University preparing for a new semester of classes, but this summer is far from typical as the university also gets ready to stage a presidential debate.

Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel will be the site of a televised debate between presidential candidates on the evening of Oct. 11. Wake Forest learned last January that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) had approved a proposal to host a debate submitted by the university and the Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).

“We have been working since the commission’s announcement, but the pace of our work has increased significantly this summer,” said the university’s debate coordinator, Sandra C. Boyette, who is vice president for university advancement.

University staff members from several administrative departments meet regularly to review debate efforts. Wake Forest and Winston-Salem CVB representatives have also met twice in the past month with debate commission groups that have visited the campus to study university facilities and provide details on the commission’s needs.

At least one more visit by commission representatives is expected before classes begin Aug. 30.

“We’re grateful for the time we have to work on the debate, since it’s looking like it may be an even bigger undertaking than our last one,” said Boyette, who coordinated campus preparations for a 1988 debate at Wake Forest between presidential candidates George Bush and Michael Dukakis. An estimated 65 million U.S. television viewers saw that debate.

With approximately 3,900 undergraduates and a total of 6,000 students, Wake Forest will find itself with a dramatic but temporary increase in its population the week of the debate. For instance, the university anticipates up to 2,500 people associated with the news media, including journalists and their technical crews, on campus for several days. Hundreds of reporters, perhaps 750, will occupy a debate media center that will be established in Wake Forest’s Benson University Center.

Although no exact figures are available for the entire media presence at the 1988 debate, it is believed that the size was smaller.

“A significant number of today’s media outlets did not exist when the 1988 debate occurred here,” Boyette said. “This is especially true with those associated with the Internet and cable television.”

The campus’ population will also swell with debate commission representatives, law enforcement officials, the candidates and their staffs, and others connected in some way to the event.

Some of those involved with the event will begin arriving on campus by the weekend before the Wednesday night debate. It is expected, for instance, to require several days to prepare Wait Chapel. Although most journalists will arrive a day or so before the debate, some may appear on campus shortly after the Oct. 5 vice presidential debate in Kentucky.

Wake Forest’s innovative use of technology in and out of the classroom played a part in its selection by the Commission on Presidential Debates to host a 2000 debate. The commission has encouraged the university to employ technology in some manner to attract young voters’ interest in the debate. University staff and students are looking at a number of ways to use technology, including possibly polling college students nationwide during the debate and Web casting campus activities surrounding the debate. No decisions have been made, yet, but plans are continuing this summer.

Wake Forest is ranked among the most “wired” universities in the nation. The university launched a technology initiative in the mid-1990s that has provided IBM laptop computers to all undergraduates, equipped classrooms with multimedia equipment, wired all buildings for Internet access, and resulted in “wireless” access to the Internet in a number of places on campus.

Providing for the debate’s utility needs is a high priority in the preparations for the debate. In the weeks leading up to the debate, for instance, work will begin outside the chapel on a temporary power substation that will meet the facility’s extraordinary electricity needs during the debate.

“In addition to the substation, we will have powerful portable generators standing by on tractor-trailers during the debate that can provide backup power instantaneously in the event of a power outage on campus,” Boyette explained. “We don’t anticipate a problem, but we will be prepared.”

Meanwhile, Wake Forest faculty members are preparing this summer for events and classes that will tie into the debate. The political science department, for example, has scheduled a “Conference on Debatable Issues in the Presidential Campaign” for the week before the debate. Twelve panel discussions, each lasting 90 minutes, will be held on Oct. 3-6. All are free and open to the public. Some topics include health care and Social Security, U.S. foreign policy interventions, and immigration.

The Wake Forest School of Law is planning a panel discussion on legal issues related to elections. The event, free and open to the public, will be held on Oct. 9.

In some instances, faculty members are creating or adapting their classes to reflect the debate. For instance, Allan Louden, associate professor of communication, plans to bring a panel of authors on books about presidential debates into his class, “Great Teachers: Presidential Debates.” Louden said some of the writers may actually watch the debate with his students.

“I believe the debate will prove to be educational for our entire campus community, including those who will serve as volunteers for the debate,” Boyette said.

At this point, about 600 people on campus, mostly students, have registered online to be debate volunteers. More volunteers are expected to sign on when classes resume for the fall semester. Freshmen will be encouraged to volunteer.

The office of Mayor Jack Cavanagh Jr. is coordinating a separate process for registering prospective volunteers from the off-campus community. An estimated 100 volunteers will be needed off-campus, according to Stephan Dragisic of the Winston-Salem CVB.

The University is also making preparations for distributing tickets to the debate, if tickets become available. At this point, university officials do not know if any tickets will be available for distribution to students, faculty and staff. The Commission on Presidential Debates controls the distribution of tickets to all groups associated with the debate, including the news media and political parties.

If the commission provides tickets to the university for distribution, the number is expected to be small. A preliminary plan calls for students, faculty and staff to participate in a lottery in the fall, as occurred with the 1988 debate. More details regarding the potential lottery will be announced in the fall semester, close to the debate.

Although Wait Chapel normally seats more than 2,000 people, hundreds of seats will be removed to accommodate the debate. All balcony seats will be removed, for instance, to make room for television anchor booths. More seats downstairs will be removed, particularly those close to the front of the chapel, where a stage will be built that will extend into the seating area.

“We regret that not everyone who would like a seat will get one, but the excitement of the debate will spread across the campus and into the city,” said Boyette. “It’s going to be a great time to be here and know that your university or your city hosted one of the most significant political events of the year. Participating in the preparations and the academic events are the real learning opportunities.”

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