Thinking big: Longwood University, host of Pence-Kaine debate, hits homer

A small college of 5,000 students, located in a little town with 8,000 residents, pulled off a big undertaking recently.

Longwood University and the surrounding community of Farmville, Virginia, served as the host site of the vice presidential debate between Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. The school’s effort to fill that role grew from a 2014 classroom discussion about Virginia’s link to presidential debates in a course being taught by the Longwood president.

Two years later, nearly 3,000 journalists, another 2,000 tourists and throngs of local people converged on the campus for basically a three-day debate festival with concerts, games, parties, interaction with news anchors, food and fun. Pence, the running mate of his behavioral opposite, Donald Trump, debated Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice president choice, in Longwood’s Willett Hall. A live audience of 500 watched inside the debate hall, another 1,500 congregated at an outdoor TV watch party in the middle of campus, and 37.2 million tuned in on network television.

The school’s performance should spark the interest of a college in Pence’s home state, Indiana, in hosting a presidential or vice presidential debate. The Hoosier state is home to numerous small and mid-major colleges that could benefit from the same exposure Longwood reaped from the debate.

“I think it’s not for everybody, but it’s special when it all comes together,” said Matthew McWilliams, the university’s director of communications and media relations, in a phone interview from Farmville.

Longwood fit a couple of crucial criteria as a host. The school emphasizes volunteerism and community engagement by its students, not unlike Indiana State University in Terre Haute, which has earned top national rankings for that virtue. “Our mission really fell in well with our hosting the vice presidential debate,” McWilliams said. “Citizen leadership is the key.”

The students lived up to that billing. A total of 700 served as volunteer workers for the debate, along with 300 others from around the town. Another 100 landed seats inside.

The university also had available funds to make the financial bid on hosting, which totaled $5.5 million, McWilliams explained. “Financially, we were on very good footing.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit and nonpartisan agency overseeing the process, weighs several attributes of potential host sites, including the facilities, the available volunteer pool, law enforcement, hotel availability and access to interstates and airports. Farmville has limited hotel spaces but benefited from the lodging availability in larger cities nearby, Richmond and Lynchburg, both within an hour’s drive, McWilliams said.

Longwood impressed the commission with its approach to blending debate and presidential topics into its classroom studies. Thirty new courses were crafted, centering on an aspect of the process or history. The university issued grants for each department to invite debate-related guest lecturers. “The debate touched every one of our students in some form or fashion,” McWilliams said.

It all spawned from one student’s idea, pitched in a classroom discussion. The instructor, university president W. Taylor Reveley IV, “initially dismissed it,” McWilliams said, but gave it thought and decided to pursue the longshot.

Dozens of applications to the debate commission came in, including one from Longwood. The commission whittled it to 16 finalists, visited the campuses “to kick the tires” on the potential sites, and arrived at the winners — three for the 2016 presidential debates (Hofstra in New York, Washington University of St. Louis and UNLV) and Longwood for the vice president showdown.

The host colleges typically aren’t household names. “A school like Harvard or Yale isn’t looking for the name recognition jolt that comes with it,” McWilliams said. Longwood is. The institution founded in 1839 is one of the nation’s 100 oldest colleges, but few people outside Virginia are aware of its existence.

The notoriety, the experience attained by the students — not only through classes, but also through working with high-caliber technological equipment needed for a televised debate — and the wide involvement by the Farmville community will pay off down the road, the university anticipates. Enrollment could jump. Alumni donations could rise. “We expect the return on investment to be substantial,” McWilliams said.

If anyone’s wondering who won the debate, that question is answered easily — Longwood University.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star.