For 90 minutes on Tuesday night, millions of Americans will tune into a vice presidential debate on the campus of a school in central Virginia probably unknown to most viewers: Longwood University.
Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the vice presidential contenders, will draw all the attention. But the public university will reap rare national exposure as the backdrop to the event with a small-town dateline of Farmville.
Rare, but not unprecedented. Longwood, founded in 1839, witnessed some of the closing actions of the Civil War in 1865 and crucial battles in the Civil Rights movement, over school desegregation, nearly a century later.
Now the school of 5,000 students is preparing to host thousands of visitors from the world of presidential politics — journalists, politicians, campaign operatives and others.
For Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV, their arrival will culminate two years of effort. Reveley, who teaches a class on the presidency, hit on the idea of hosting the debate in 2014 and put together a bid that resulted in the selection of the school last fall. Hosting the debate, he said, coincided with an initiative to make citizenship “the North Star of our general education curriculum.” The Commission on Presidential Debates chose Longwood from among 16 finalists out of about 100 schools that expressed interest.
“The demands that go onto the institution are extraordinary,” Michael D. McCurry, co-chairman of the commission, said. “You’ve got to have total, all-in commitment.” Longwood, McCurry said, has been “exceptional.”
Reveley said the school budgeted about $5.5 million to stage the event and related activities, a massive enterprise that encompasses details such as having a complete backup source of electric power in place to ensure a seamless production for the national audience. Some expenses will be recouped. The rest is considered an investment in marketing, education and community-building.
“It’s produced such energy for the campus,” Reveley said. “It’s a time students really will remember all their lives — an opportunity to see history unfold.”
Beyond logistics, the university also has woven the debate and presidential campaign into its teaching. An intermediate French class will be live-tweeting the debate in French. A music appreciation class is studying music as political propaganda. A photography class is documenting the debate and other events on the campaign trail. And an economics class is using the campaign to study applied game theory.
Classes took a one-week pause, starting Thursday, as Longwood geared up for the debate. Seven hundred students have enlisted as volunteers to help visitors navigate the campus and do their jobs.
Emily Spittle, 21, of Warrenton, Va., said she will be a “media room floater.” A senior majoring in graphic design, she was chosen for that duty because she is looking at a career in advertising and marketing. Spittle and others from Longwood drove three hours north to Washington on Wednesday for a symposium on the vice presidential debates at the Decatur House, about a block away from the White House.
“I can’t wait to see the hubbub and activity,” Spittle said. “It’s a great way to show off the community of Longwood and the spirit.”
Olivia Zaleski, 20, a junior from Midlothian, Va., and Lucas Robillard, 21, a senior from Charles Town, W.Va., said they would be wearing reflective orange vests on debate day to help with parking and transportation. Robillard, who aspires to be a history teacher, said the event will help put Longwood on the national map.
“We can say we go to Longwood,” he said. “And we don’t need to explain what it is, where it is, and what we’re about.”
Longwood is the third-oldest public university in Virginia, after the College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia. The campus has Jeffersonian style brick buildings. Its sports teams are called the Lancers. A women’s college until the 1970s, Longwood became a university in 2002. The school saw the Union army chase rebels through town just before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
It also saw African American students protest conditions at an all-black high school on the edge of campus in 1951, a catalytic event in the drive to end racial segregation in public schools. At the time, Longwood was all-white. In 2014, Longwood’s trustees voted to express regret for the college’s failure to do more to help African Americans during that era.
Some colleges that have hosted vice presidential debates were already well known: Georgia Tech in 1992, Case Western Reserve University in 2004, Washington University in St. Louis in 2008. The latter hosted the most-watched veep debate, between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin.
Centre College, in Danville, Ky., hosted the vice presidential debates of 2000 and 2012. They called the first one “Thrill in the ‘Ville.” That worked so well, Centre spokesman Michael Strysick said, that the sequel was dubbed “Thrill in the ‘Ville 2.”
Those debates provided an invaluable boost to name recognition for a 1,400-student school that boasts among its alumni two 19th-century U.S. vice presidents (John C. Breckenridge and Adlai Stevenson). Not only did tens of millions watch the televised debates, but the school got mentioned in subsequent coverage and on venues such as the television show “Saturday Night Live.”
“The debate host becomes for a time the center of the political universe,” Strysick said. “For a brief time.”