There are good Web sites and nice pamphlets, and buzzy social-media campaigns. But for forcing a little-known college into the public consciousness, it’s hard to imagine many things with a bigger impact than hosting a major presidential campaign event.
When the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the four sites for the 2016 campaign, most people probably weren’t overly familiar with Longwood University.
Its president is hoping by this time next October, many will connect the name with a pretty old campus in Virginia, the idea of leadership forged through reconciliation, and a remarkable connection to two of the most defining moments in U.S. history.
In 2012, the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Kentucky was watched by more than 51 million people in the U.S., and many more abroad.
The vice presidential debate next Oct. 4 is expected to bring three thousand journalists to Longwood.
“It’s one of the great opportunities that universities have,” said Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV, to broadcast a strong message about the school’s name and reputation.
Students cheered and painted their faces blue and white when they heard the news. Reveley, who played football in college, felt like they’d just won the big game (and the simultaneous excitement of preparing for the really big one.) At a community meeting, when a professor announced the news, “people clapped their hands and hooted and hollered,” said Larissa Fergeson, a history professor and an academic affairs administrator at Longwood.
A professor who has been on the faculty there for decades told history professor David Coles, ” ‘This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to Longwood.’ This will be a big shot in the arm publicity-wise, for name recognition.”
So how did they pull this off?
Reveley had the idea, after telling students in a class on the U.S. presidency last fall about Virginia’s unique role hosting many debates.
Then he started to think: Could we … ?
The college has an unusual history. Some of the closing scenes of the Civil War played out by one end of campus, and some of the opening scenes of the Civil Rights movement happened on the other end. After a major battle that took out a quarter of the Confederate troops, Coles said, there were skirmishes in Farmville and the exhausted, wounded Confederate soldiers retreated along a road that borders the campus on their way to Appomattox. The Union army marched through, too. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s first request to Gen. Robert E. Lee to consider surrender was written from Farmville. Two days later, the war ended.
Nearly a century later, there was a student strike on the other side of Longwood’s campus, as black students organized a strike over conditions at an overcrowded school, where they referred to their leaky classrooms as “tar-paper shacks.” Their cause became one of the lawsuits that led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that ultimately ended segregated public schools. (It took years more, and another Supreme Court case, after the county closed its public schools before the county to reopened public schools to all students.)
“These were important moments when America was at a crossroads,” Fergeson said, deeply divided but ultimately able to move toward reconciliation. She sees a parallel in the present day. “This entire campaign is significant in hoping there will be someone who will be able to show us a way forward, out of this politics of ideology and division.”
It’s a compelling, poetic narrative. But the debate commission is pragmatic. “What’s in the back of everybody’s mind is the 27-minute silence in the Ford-Carter debate,” said Janet Brown, executive director, when something had gone wrong and the candidates just had to wait until they straightened out the problem with the broadcast.
They think about the facility — is there a loading dock? Where will all the TV trucks part? How’s that wireless? — the team leading the effort, and the support for the debate in surrounding communities.
Longwood happened to have several people in the administration with experience and skills in politics, press and event planning — including Reveley, who was used to planning events featuring political speakers at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs — so they felt able to gauge how challenging it would be.
Virginia’s congressional delegation, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and local leaders advocated for Longwood.
Alumni have been very supportive, Reveley said. He expects the cost to the university to be a couple million dollars. (The commission covers the cost of the debate, roughly speaking, and the college covers the infrastructure costs.)
“When you think about it in the context of dollars you might spend to provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students – and to have the kind of national reach – for any university of consequence,” Reveley said, “it’s not really a material amount of money.”
They made the bid at a time when they’re planning physical changes to the campus, so they’re unusually flexible in the infrastructure investments and improvements they can make. Likewise, they’re planning changes to the curriculum, so he and others are excited about the opportunity to weave presidential politics into pilot classes in the coming year.
“We’ve been walking around about six inches off the ground since last week,” Fergeson said. “We’re really excited for people to find out about us.”