Campus & Community

DU prepares for first presidential debate

The University of Denver hosts the first presidential debate of 2012 on Oct. 3. Visit for more information.

Once a university has agreed to host a presidential debate, the questions start to pile up pretty quickly. Who needs security clearances? How do ticketholders get inside the Ritchie Center? Where’s everyone going to park? What happens if it rains or snows?

And what about the networks that want to air their morning shows from campus in the days leading up to the debate? What about faculty and staff who work in the area that will become the fenced-off secure zone? Where do students fit into all of this?

All these questions and more are now the province of David Greenberg, the University’s vice chancellor of institutional partnerships. Working with constituents and committees across campus, Greenberg is keenly focused on one date: Oct. 3, the day the 2012 presidential candidates will square off in Magness Arena in the first presidential debate of the 2012 election.

“It’s a big deal,” says Greenberg, de facto project manager for the event. “The logistics are really mind-blowing.”

On Oct. 31, 2011, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)—the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has sponsored the events since 1988—selected the University of Denver as a debate host, making DU the first university in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region to host a presidential debate.

“We’ve been told that since it is the first debate of the series, involving a sitting president and taking place at such a critical time for world and national affairs,” observes Chancellor Robert Coombe, “the debate at the University of Denver may be one of the highest-rated television programs in all of 2012, approaching the numbers of the Super Bowl.”

The University’s road to the debate began in March 2011, when the chancellor and Board of Trustees authorized the institution to make a bid to become a debate host for the 2012 election season. Eleven other schools submitted applications, among them debate veterans Hofstra, Washington University (in Saint Louis) and Wake Forest University.

The CPD had a long list of criteria: an air-conditioned hall of at least 17,000 square feet; nearby parking that can accommodate 30 television remote trucks, trailers and satellite trucks up to 53 feet in length; a 20,000-square-foot (minimum) media filing center in the same facility.

But meeting the CPD’s minimum specs may not have been the only reason the University landed the big event, says Associate Professor Seth Masket, chair of DU’s political science department.

“At least part of it has to be that Colorado has become a pivotal state in presidential elections,” says Masket, author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2011). “While it used to be reliably Republican, the state has become very competitive over the last decade, and it’s seen as the key to the increasingly competitive Rocky Mountain region. By some measures, Colorado is the ‘swingiest’ of the swing states. It’s well balanced between Democrats and Republicans, and it has shown a tendency to switch allegiances from election to election. So a lot of the campaign will be waged here in Colorado.”

For the CPD’s part, the priority is ensuring a seamless broadcast. The specter of the 1976 technical glitch that stopped the first debate between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter for 27 minutes looms to the point that the CPD would forgo geographically distributing the debates in favor of locations they know can get the job done.

“This is much larger than one campus and one city,” explains CPD Executive Director Janet Brown.

At the University, the debate is being handled by a seven-member steering committee, along with a 27-member organizational committee made up of representatives from offices ranging from Parking Services and Campus Safety to Alumni Relations and University Technology Services. A separate student committee is planning events related to campus life.

Serving as a presidential debate site also comes with a price—$1.65 million, an amount the University has been courting donors to cover.

“If you look at universities that have previously held debates,” Greenberg explains, “a lot of them have done it repeatedly: Washington University, Hofstra, Center College. Obviously their metrics have proved it to be a worthwhile endeavor.”

Cathy Grieve (MA ’75, PhD ’79), executive director of Conference and Event Services at DU, was part of a team that met in late 2011 with the other schools selected to host debates this year.

“They said, ‘Just picture CNN, ABC, all the networks on the campus green, everybody broadcasting live from the University of Denver,’” says Grieve, who has served on the debate steering committee since the application process began. “That just resonated with us. You’ll never be able to purchase that type of exposure.”

The University’s selection as a debate site has yet to generate the publicity wattage that leads to changes in matriculation. Emily Forbes, director of communication for the Office of Undergraduate Admission, explains that the entering class of 2016 was too far along in the enrollment process for the debate to matter. “We should see it not only next year, but also the following year,” she says. “With this age group, having a nationally prominent event on campus may be just as big an influence as the debate itself.”

But for the students already here, the debate is an eagerly anticipated event that will define their time at the University.

“To hear that there will be an estimated 200 million international viewers is incredible,” says junior and student body president Sam Estenson. “I expect our image to skyrocket around the U.S. and around the world. This adds prestige to the degree we’re receiving and the prospects we will have down the road.”

Of course the topic on everyone’s mind—students, faculty, staff, alumni and neighbors—is tickets. Everyone wants to sit in Magness Arena the night of the debate.

The CPD controls tickets, which will be allocated among a variety of groups, including the presidential campaigns and the University. The University intends to allocate its student tickets via a random lottery system.

Those who aren’t lucky enough to attend the main event will have plenty of exposure to campaign issues. Mindful of the educational potential surrounding the event, the University has mounted a Debate Event Series that so far has featured appearances by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (BA ’74, PhD ’81); former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; retired four-star Gen. George Casey (MA ’80); and PBS journalist Ray Suarez. (Visit for a schedule of remaining events in the series.)

In addition, more than 5,000 campus community members and neighbors are expected to attend DebateFest, a free outdoor watch party on campus that features live music, family activities and debate viewing on giant screens. “Issues Alley,” a walkway lined with tents and tables, will find organizations championing diverse issues, while a “food truck rally” will introduce Denver’s vibrant mobile-cuisine scene to the national and international media.

Estenson, student coordinator of DebateFest, sees the chance to work on an event of this magnitude as a great resumé builder. But more than that, he views it as an extraordinary life experience.

“I think this Oct. 3 and this fall will be talked about for years and years and will be in every graduation speech for the classes that experienced this,” he says. “We’ll all be able to say, ‘I was on campus for the presidential debate.’ That will be an experience we all share.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *