Across Wake Forest, preparations underway for presidential debate

Across Wake Forest University, signs are everywhere that preparations are underway for a presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 11 in the university’s Wait Chapel.

Red, white and blue banners announcing the debate hang from tall, green light poles lining sidewalks on the University Plaza. In the nearby College Book Store, a display of presidential debate merchandise-all featuring the university-designed debate logo-greets students, faculty and staff as they enter.

Professors are teaching classes built around the presidential debate and campaign, organizers are planning special debate and campaign-related conferences, and tech-savvy students and staff are preparing to use technology in new ways to boost the youth interest in the debate. Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 people on campus-mostly undergraduates-have already registered to serve as volunteers for the debate.

“This is an event that many people have been working on for a long while now,” said Sandra C. Boyette, vice president for university advancement. “There’s a lot of excitement.”

“In many ways, it feels like it did here in 1988, when presidential candidates George Bush and Michael Dukakis debated that fall in the chapel,” added Boyette, who coordinated university preparations for the previous debate and is overseeing preparations for this event. “Hundreds of students volunteered to help in 1988, and there was great anticipation of the debate.”

There is one other similarity between the two debates. As occurred in 1988, the candidates are having a debate about the debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three presidential debates-including one at Wake Forest-and one vice presidential debate. To date, the candidates have not agreed on a final debate schedule. The commission has not announced any change to its original schedule.

“At Wake Forest, we’re continuing to work closely with the commission,” Boyette said. “We’ve had a long relationship with the commission, and we want to support the commission while it works to resolve this issue. North Carolina is an important state to both candidates, so we have high hopes.”

“Meanwhile, preparations here for the debate remain underway and on schedule,” she added.

Wake Forest and the Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) began its preparations about a year ago, when they submitted a proposal to bring a presidential debate to Wake Forest. In January, the Commission on Presidential Debates approved the proposal. The commission also announced two other presidential debates: Oct. 3, University of Massachusetts in Boston; and Oct. 17, Washington University in St. Louis. In addition, the commission scheduled a vice presidential debate for Oct. 5 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Wake Forest preparations picked up momentum through the summer months, and have continued to move at a fast pace.

So far, 1,450 students, faculty and staff have registered online at Wake Forest as debate volunteers. Of that number, 1,306 are undergraduates. The deadline for registering is Sept. 18.

The office of Winston-Salem Mayor Jack Cavanagh Jr. registered volunteers for off-campus debate activities.

Several faculty members are preparing classes and events that tie into the presidential debate and 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 election issues. Panels will convene at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Oct. 3-6. Some details for the conference are still being settled. The conference is free and open to the public.

The Wake Forest School of Law will host a “Presidential Election Symposium” on Oct. 9 from 6-8 p.m. in the Worrell Professional Center, Room 1312. Journalist Jack Ford, co-anchor of ABC’s “20/20” and guest anchor on “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight,” will moderate the event. Four speakers are scheduled.

“We hope the speakers’ comments and discussion about legal issues related to elections will provide information to the community to make a better educated choice at election time,” said Robert K. Walsh, dean of the School of Law.

Rock the Vote, a non-profit organization, has joined the university in developing events around the debate. The organization is planning a concert and other activities near campus on the night of the debate. Details are still being settled.

Plans for other public lectures, panel discussions and events are still developing.

Allan Louden, the director of Wake Forest’s collegiate debate program and associate professor of communication, is among the faculty members focused on the educational opportunities hosting a presidential debate offers.

Louden is teaching a course titled, “Great Teachers: Presidential Debates,” this fall semester. During the week of the presidential debate, he will bring to his class a panel of authors who have written books on presidential debates.

Other debate and campaign-related classes this fall include:

  • “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 political science.
  • “Ways of Thinking about 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 liberal arts institution with extraordinary expertise in the use of technology in teaching. The Commission on Presidential Debates has encouraged Wake Forest to apply technology in various ways to stimulate interest in the debate among young people.

Staff and students are working together on various technology projects. One of the projects is directed at high school students, in particular. The program, which began Sept. 5 and will run nine weeks, is called “Linking Debatable Issues, the Wake Forest A.P. Electoral Project.” Students in Advanced Placement Government and U.S. History classes at 77 high schools nationwide are studying 12 campaign issues drawn from the political science department’s October conference.

Other projects include conducting online polls before the debate and a separate survey activity during the debate with up to 5,000 young people recruited by and including Wake Forest students.

The university will hold an online lottery for distributing tickets to the debate, in case tickets become available for students, faculty and staff. The commission controls the distribution of tickets to all groups associated with the debate, including the news media and political parties.

Registration for the on-campus lottery will run from Sept. 18-Oct. 6. Final details on the lottery will be posted on a special debate Web site developed by the university. The address for the site is The site will provide timely information on debate preparations, as well as links to various high-tech debate projects developed by the university.

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