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How Lynn University snagged the presidential debate

How does a small, unknown private university introduce its brand to 65 million people at the same time? If it is Lynn University in Florida, it snags the last presidential debate in the 2012 election campaign, and spends a year getting ready for its big moment.

Nobody was more surprised that Lynn was selected to host tonight’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney than the school’s 39-year-old president, Kevin Ross. “It’s not an obvious choice,” he said. “It made sense that there would be a debate in Florida, but there are a lot of schools in Florida to choose from.”

Ross will be watching the event on television near — but not inside the performing arts center on campus — because he and other administrators decided to give all of the tickets to students. “It’s more important that they be there to witness it than it is for me,” he said in an interview.

Ross became president of Lynn — which is named after the family of philanthropist Eugene M. Lynn — in 2006 when his father, Donald E. Ross, retired after 35 years.

The school that became Lynn was initially a Catholic junior college for women in Boca Raton, about 50 miles north of Miami, but it became an independent, non-secular four-year university in the 1970s and ’80s under the leadership of Ross’s father. Lynn’s 123-acre campus (which is three miles from the Atlantic Ocean) educates 1,660 undergraduates and 450 graduate students from 44 states and nearly 80 countries. It has a world-class music conservatory, athletics and a comprehensive program for students with learning disabilities.

Always looking for ways to promote his university, Ross said he was inspired by the presidential debate that was held at the University of Mississippi in 2008. “That gave the school an opportunity to present a different face to a national audience than the one many people may have had from its past in the 1960s,” he said, referring to the era of segregation at Mississippi. In fact, the University of Mississippi helped Lynn with some of its planning documents.

Ross said he had no expectations going into the process and thought that if Lynn was to be lucky enough to get any debate, it might be the one between the vice presidential candidates. Lynn administrators filled out a massive application that asked a dizzying amount of detailed questions — including how many sprinkler heads were on campus — and then waited for word.

A year ago, Ross was told Lynn was a presidential winner, but he was told to keep the news quiet for a while. He swore his family to secrecy repeatedly before he told them the news.

For the last year Lynn has been getting ready, laying down miles of cables and even filling in one of the handful of lakes on the campus to make it easier for communications trucks to do their thing tonight.

Lynn also put together a school curriculum for grades K-12 on debate and presidential history that is available for free on iTunes and on the university’s debate page.