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In the Spotlight

Longwood University hosts the VP debates: the inside story.

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A student lottery for debate tickets draws a crowd. Photo credit: Longwood University

What does it take to pull off a national debate in one of the most contentious elections in memory? Longwood University found out last week when it hosted the vice-presidential candidates in their only debate. To learn more about the process and how it affected campus we talked to Longwood communications director Matt McWilliams.
 

SCHEV News: When did you start work on the vice presidential debate?

Matt McWilliams:
From conception to broadcast, it was a two-year process. President W. Taylor Reveley IV teaches a class on the presidency, and the idea emerged from a discussion on the role of debates in our politics.

Even before we were selected to host the debate, we began thinking about how we could integrate the themes of the debate into the student experience and academic curriculum. What emerged were more than thirty courses reshaped or created around themes of citizenship and democracy, and a top-notch slate of speakers representing each department’s perspective. Those 30-plus courses are serving as de facto pilots for a new citizenship-focused general education curriculum that will be debuting over the next few years, so that will be a real, lasting legacy of the debate.

The work began in earnest last October when we learned we would host the only vice presidential debate of the cycle. That same goal of engaging students and taking full advantage of the jolt of national publicity that comes with an event this large drove every meeting after that.

What was the biggest challenge Longwood University faced?

Any event of this magnitude requires enormous logistical planning that would be a challenge for any university in our position. We drew on the expertise of several key university leaders, previous debate hosts and other experts to put a comprehensive plan in place that was flexible enough to change — sometimes within minutes. 

From the beginning, however, Longwood was laser-focused on engaging our students, making the most of the opportunity, and leaving a legacy, and those pillars guided our decision-making, provided the keys to solve problems and frustrations, and ensured we built a debate that topped expectations.

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What goal or measurement did you choose to indicate if you succeeded?

There are several goals we outlined that we wanted to hit, and the results will be made clear as the days and weeks progress and we look back at several key metrics, from philanthropy to admissions to international name recognition. Just looking at the few days surrounding the debate, we saw the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in media placements—publicity that can’t be replicated in many other ways.

Two key moments strike me as early indications of enormous success: first, the outdoor watch party—made up mostly of students—was packed on debate night, with an energy that would surpass many music festivals. Our students were engaged. Second, I recall a conversation with a network executive producer. She said when she saw that the vice-presidential debate was being hosted in Farmville, she was initially more than a bit wary, but that we blew her expectations out of the water — this was not only a great debate, but we were the best hosts she had ever experienced. That’s a testament to the planning, people and resources that went into this project.

From a communications perspective, one key measurement was the number of top-level placements that covered Longwood, and not just the debate. We knew that there would be thousands of stories that mentioned us as the host but little more than that — and we worked very hard to place stories that went beyond the dateline. From stories in the Washington Post to The Atlantic to the Wall Street Journal, we were able to succeed in large measure.

Now that it’s over, how do you think it went?

It really was an enormous success. All feedback was that we set a new bar for how a debate is run—from integrating the debate into the classroom to ensuring the facilities are functional and comfortable. That’s a testament to the people we had in leadership positions on the debate team, who put in countless hours to make this happen.

One of the things we are most proud of is there were no arrests or serious medical issues during the debate week. That’s a direct result of good planning and an emphasis on civility.


“From the beginning Longwood was laser-focused on engaging our students, making the most of the opportunity, and leaving a legacy.”


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Longwood's campus, in pre-debate calm.  

Looking back, what was your biggest surprise (or lesson) about the event?

One of the first things several key people did after we were named a host site was take a trip to Danville, Kentucky, to meet with Centre College staff who worked on the 2012 vice presidential debate, and I’ll never forget what Michael Strysick, their communications director said: “Be prepared for change.”

That lesson — that flexibility must be built into planning for an event like this — was learned and re-learned throughout the 12 months of intense debate planning. When we oversold Spin Alley and had to take out workspace in the filing center just 18 hours before the debate began to accommodate additional television crews, I was glad we had planned to be flexible on any front.

 

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