Wake Forest University begins this fall semester as it did in 1988—preparing to host a presidential debate on campus.
“We’ve staged exciting events at Wake Forest in the last dozen years, but hosting a presidential debate is unlike anything else,” said Sandra Boyette, vice president for university advancement, who coordinated university preparations for the 1988 debate between Michael Dukakis and George Bush.
“It’s such an extraordinary educational experience for our students and our community,” added Boyette, who is overseeing preparations this year.
Scheduled for Wednesday night, Oct. 11, the debate is bringing to the campus special events and classes, as well as the nation’s top journalists, not to mention candidates for the presidency of the United States.
Wake Forest is also exploring opportunities for using its experience with technology to boost the youth interest in the debate. Joining the university in promoting the youth vote will be Rock the Vote, a non-profit organization that has scheduled a concert and other activities near campus on debate night.
The start of undergraduate classes on Aug. 30 marks the arrival of a sizable corps of debate volunteers. More than 650 undergraduate students have registered to volunteer, and that number will rise, according to Paige Wilbanks, associate director of student development. Approximately 100 faculty, staff, and graduate and professional school students have registered, too.
“Many of the volunteers are students who signed up late last spring, just before classes ended,” Wilbanks said. “We expect freshmen to sign up once they grow more familiar with the event and the volunteer opportunities.”
Faculty, staff and students register on-line through a special university debate Web site at http://debate.wfu.edu. The office of Winston-Salem Mayor Jack Cavanagh Jr. is coordinating volunteer registration off-campus.
Wake Forest and the Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) began planning for the debate last January when the Commission on Presidential Debates approved their proposal to bring a debate to the campus. The commission also scheduled two other presidential debates: Oct. 3, University of Massachusetts/John F. Kennedy Library in Boston; and Oct. 17, Washington University in St. Louis. A vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 5 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Preparations picked up momentum through the summer months.
“The decreased activity on campus this summer gave us an excellent chance to focus on the debate,” Boyette said. “Staff and faculty have been preparing to take advantage of all that the debate offers our students and community.”
Several faculty members are preparing classes and events that tie into the presidential campaign. The largest event will be a four-day “Conference on Debatable Issues in the Presidential Campaign.” Organized by the political science department, the conference will feature 12 panel discussions on Oct. 3-6, with sessions daily at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. All are free and open to the public. Topics include health care and Social Security, foreign policy interventions, and immigration. Conference details are still being settled.
Another campus event will be a “Presidential Election Symposium” presented by the Wake Forest School of Law. Focusing on campaign finance reform and other issues, the event will be held at the university’s Worrell Professional Center from 6-8 p.m. on Oct. 9. Moderated by journalist Jack Ford of ABC’s “20/20,” the program will be free and open to the public.
Rock the Vote is planning a concert and other activities for the night of the debate. Many details for the event have not been settled, but the program is planned for Ernie Shore Field, next to Wake Forest’s Groves Stadium.
Wake Forest and Rock the Vote officials began discussing the event this summer. Organizers have not announced the event’s schedule or list of entertainers. A large screen will be set up for the audience to watch the debate.
Some debate and campaign-related classes scheduled for the fall include:
- “Great Teachers: Presidential Debates.” Allan Louden, associate professor of communication, is scheduling authors of books on presidential debates to visit the class, including watching the debate with the students.
- “Topics in Public Policy: Debates and Campaigns,” a class taught by Kathy Smith, professor and chair of political science.
- “Deliberative Democracy,” a first-year seminar taught by Katy Harriger, associate professor of politics.
- “The Economist’s Way of Thinking about the Campaigns for the U.S. Presidency,” a first-year seminar taught by David G. Brown, vice president and professor of economics.
Wake Forest, which launched a comprehensive technology initiative in the mid-1990s, was chosen as a debate site in part because of its reputation as a tech-savvy liberal arts institution. The commission has encouraged Wake Forest to apply technology in some manner to stimulate interest in the debate among young people.
Staff and students are working together on various technology projects, all of which are still being developed. Plans include conducting on-line polls ahead of the event and a separate polling activity during the debate with up to 5,000 young people. The latter poll allows the television viewer to express approval or disapproval of candidates’ comments through a virtual dial on the viewer’s computer screen.
Preparations for the debate will grow more visible as the debate nears, said Melody Graham, Wake Forest’s debate coordinator. For instance, in September work will begin outside Wait Chapel on a temporary substation to meet the chapel’s exceptional electricity needs during the debate. Preparation of the chapel may begin about one week before the event. All seats in the chapel’s balcony will be removed to make room for television anchor booths, and a stage will be constructed at the chapel’s front that will extend into the seating area.
The university will hold an on-line lottery for distributing tickets to the debate, if tickets become available for students, faculty and staff. Registration for the lottery will run from Sept. 15-Oct. 2. Details will be available on the university’s debate Web site.
The debate commission controls the distribution of tickets to all groups associated with the event, including the news media and political parties.
“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,” Boyette said.
Journalists and others connected to the debate likely will begin arriving by the weekend before the event, Boyette said. By the day of the debate, up to 2,500 people associated with the news media, including journalists and their technical crews, will be on campus. Hundreds of reporters, perhaps 750-800, will occupy a debate media center that will be established in Wake Forest’s Benson University Center.
The campus’ population will also swell with debate commission representatives, law enforcement officials, the candidates and their staffs, and others.
University officials are developing plans now to accommodate the increased activity and population on campus during the time surrounding the debate. Some buildings-such as Benson Center, Wait Chapel and the adjoining Wingate Hall-and parking lots will be converted into use for the debate in the days leading up to it. Initial plans call for establishing nearby satellite parking areas off-campus and providing shuttle service to campus.
“As details regarding parking and building usage are finalized, we will be using the media and other methods to inform the university community,” Boyette said. “On campus, we will use voice mail and e-mail messages to distribute some details.”