A Costly Debate

Presidential election events become riskier proposition for colleges amid rising security concerns and financial costs.

July 20, 2016
Wright State U
Wright State U President David Hopkins announcing debate cancellation

CLEVELAND -- Colleges have long angled to play host to presidential election events, both to create educational opportunities for their students and to get publicity. A more cautious approach is emerging amid this unusual election, however.

Wright State University on Tuesday pulled out of hosting the first presidential debate of the general election, citing security and financial concerns. And several campuses here were quiet as nearby institutions scaled back their operations, largely due to worries about safety.

"This is a very difficult decision,” said David Hopkins, Wright State’s president. “But there has been a growing crescendo of concern about what it would take to guarantee the safety and security of the campus and the community. The expense would be daunting.”

Wright State, which is located in Dayton, Ohio, was to host the first of four debates. But cost estimates for the event had grown from $3.5 million to more than $8 million, which Hopkins said was too much for the public research university.

Security worries during the heated election were a key driver of those estimates, according to the university. And Hopkins said Wright State, as a public university, would not have been able to restrict public access to its campus for safety during the debate as could a private institution. Hofstra University, a private university located on New York’s Long Island, will instead host the Sept. 26 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Officials at Wright State did their homework before deciding to host the debate. They reached out to 11 colleges that had been home to previous presidential debates, the Dayton Daily News reported.

They heard a clear consensus that a debate, while expensive, was well worth it given the exposure colleges received. Students got a chance to experience a high-profile exercise in democracy at those institutions, which in some cases saw a boost in applications and fund-raising, Wright State learned in those interviews.

The tense vibe of this election is different, however.

Citing a “growing crescendo of concern about what it would take to guarantee the safety and security of the campus and the community,” said Hopkins, “the current national environment has made security even more critical.”

Colleges sign up to host events like the debates knowing there are high risks and costs tied to their participation, as well as significant returns from related publicity and unique learning opportunities for students, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal of TVP Communications, a public relations firm, who has worked with colleges that have hosted presidential debates.

“If and when an institution believes that the risks outweigh the benefits, it must do what is fiscally responsible and most closely aligned with its mission to educate students -- even if that mean canceling their participation,” she said via email. “It is far wiser for an institution to decline to host an event than to know of campus vulnerabilities and not cancel their participation. Each president should know if their campus and community can successfully host an event of this magnitude, including the ability to meet the event's security realities, and plan accordingly.”

A few colleges located near the 1.7-square-mile security perimeter here in Cleveland opted to shut down activities on their campuses during the Republican National Convention. Roughly half of the city’s downtown has some form of restricted access.

Cleveland State University opted not to hold classes on campus this week. The university said it made the decision because of expected traffic and parking conditions around its downtown campus.

About 1,700 students will be affected. University officials told professors to deliver class content online, at alternate sites or through take-home projects.

The university’s recreation center and library are open to delegates during the convention, Cleveland.com reported. And the university is hosting several convention-related events.

Cuyahoga Community College has been open this week. Students on Tuesday were walking around normally at the large two-year institution’s Metropolitan Campus, which is a mile from the Quicken Loans Arena, the convention site. And on Monday, Cleveland.com reported that Tri-C hosted a campaign event for Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, spoke at the event.

Security issues played a role in the scaling back of most activities at Case Western Reserve University, but not because the university is unprotected.

Case Western is hosting 1,700 police officers and 200 members of the National Guard in its facilities this week. Some faculty members and students had complained about that move and called for the law enforcement officials to keep their weapons out of university facilities.

The university made the decision to host the police officers at the request of the city, said Barbara Snyder, Case Western’s president, in an email to campus. She said city police had helped the campus police department when needed.

“In answering the city's convention request, we failed to give adequate consideration to the impact the decision would have on members of our community,” she wrote, “in particular students staying in residence halls near the buildings housing the officers.”


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