Turning Point

News of Longwood’s selection as host of the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate sweeps through campus, setting the university on a new course


2016 Debate: By the numbers: 51 million Number of people who watched the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate, 37 million Number of people who watched the 2015 Academy Awards, $50 million Estimated value of media coverage for Longwood resulting from the debate, 3,000 number of journalists expected to be on campus for the debate, 4: Number of general election debates — 3 presidential, 1 vice presidentialIt was a spectacularly sunny Wednesday afternoon in late September, and junior Shea Pennington was in Greenwood Library, hard at work studying for a big test later that day. Suddenly around him, phones began buzzing and murmurs broke out. The news broke with a tweet, spread like wildfire through social media and uncountable text messages, and, moments later, was confirmed by an email from President W. Taylor Reveley IV to the campus.

“I can’t believe it,” someone said. “We got a debate!” Down Brock Commons, Dr. Amorette Barber, assistant professor of biology, checked her email quickly between classes and let out a whoop. Her colleagues poured out of their offices and shared in the excitement. “I started my next class by bringing President Reveley’s email up on the white board,” she said. “Students were high-fiving, and we all celebrated for the next 15 minutes.”

It took just moments before the whole campus—indeed the entire Longwood universe—was abuzz with the news that Longwood had been selected to host the lone Vice Presidential Debate of the 2016 general election, an event that draws international attention. The 2012 Vice Presidential Debate attracted 51 million viewers and the 2008 event more than 70 million. Next Oct. 4, the eyes of the world will be on Longwood, with as many as 3,000 journalists from around the world expected to converge for the event.

Later on the afternoon of the announcement, students, faculty and staff gathered for an impromptu celebration at Beale Plaza. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students and a remarkable achievement for our historic university,” Reveley told the crowd, raising his plastic cup to lead a lemonade toast. “This debate will invigorate and energize everything we do over the next year and beyond.”

Political science professor Bill Harbour echoed Reveley’s enthusiasm. “I’ve been here since 1976. This is the greatest thing I’ve seen happen to the university and the town in terms of getting our name out,” he told the Farmville Herald for a story that ran the next day. Under the banner headline “Undebatable!” the story included words of widespread support from community leaders.

“It’s all anyone is talking about,” said SGA president Constance Garner ’16, a business administration major from Clarksville. “Everywhere I go, people want to talk about how great it is for Longwood—it’s a real chance to show off everything the student body loves about this university.”

Longwood was selected as a host site by the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose responsibilities include staging the four debates that precede each presidential election. The message in Longwood’s application that resonated with the commission focused on a central element of the university’s identity: its history as a place where leadership has been forged in reconciliation. Commission members heard how the Longwood campus is bookended by the sites of two great watershed moments of the last two centuries: The Civil War effectively drew to a close steps away from the northern border of campus, while the modern civil rights movement sprang from a student-led school strike at Moton High School on the southern border.

In a time when identity politics and division are the new normal in Washington, D.C., Longwood’s history as a place of reconciliation takes on additional meaning.

“There is no more fitting campus for a general election debate than Longwood,” said Reveley. “The commission has placed on us an enormous responsibility, but this campus is prepared and energized to represent both the university and Virginia in a way that makes us all proud.”

Indeed, the benefits to Longwood will be enormous. Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., the host of the final 2012 Presidential Debate, estimated the immediate economic impact to the region at more than $11 million. Estimates from other previous host sites value the media publicity at more than $50 million.

The long-term effects are just as powerful. At Centre College, which has hosted two vice presidential debates, applications from prospective students spiked significantly at the times of the debates and remain at that higher level years later. The debate also provides an opportunity for alumni to reconnect with and take a great deal of pride in their alma mater.

As preparations come into sharper focus, there will be a need for volunteers both on campus and off. Alumni can keep up with developments and volunteer options by subscribing to email updates at debate.longwood.edu.

The next year will be chock full of debate-related classes, lectures, speakers, research and other academic opportunities for students leading up to the culminating event Oct. 4 in Willett Hall. As a practical matter and to enable students to participate fully in related events, classes will not be scheduled for a few days immediately surrounding the debate.

For answers to many frequently asked questions and updates throughout the year preceding the debate, please visit debate.longwood.edu.

—Matthew McWilliams