Small Centre College gets big lesson hosting vice-presidential debate

If Centre College was looking for a quick education in political uncertainties, it succeeded.

The Danville, Ky., school has spent more than a year preparing to host a big campaign event: the debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney.

Like most colleges, Centre is accustomed to putting on some good-sized shows without a hitch: graduation, say, with its expectant parents and potential donors, or the brass-band festival that brings 40,000 people to campus each year.

But when your guests are the No. 2 players in a tight race for the White House, anything can happen. And even the most practiced of events planners can suddenly feel like freshmen finding out at the last minute that the book they skipped will be on the final exam after all.

That's what happened when, even as the stage floor was being repainted and hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable run to accommodate 700-plus journalists, the Bush campaign balked at the selection of the college as a site by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

'Save the debate'

What followed was an intensive push to "save the debate," scheduled for Oct. 5. that rivaled the campaign to land the event in the first place.

The school talked about keeping promises - especially those made to small towns (where lots of people vote). It touted the $700,000 already spent on everything from traffic planning to security measures. Kentucky politicians were called on to support the cause. Members of the 1,000-student campus rallied, and the college spoke of the hundreds of schoolchildren who had written letters in support of the debate - and would get a sour lesson in politics if it were canceled.

It was a definite A for effort. And last week, the school learned that the debate would go on as planned - and that coordinators could return to the task of learning just how complex it can be to get two prominent individuals together to talk for one hour.

Indeed, bringing two national campaigns to Danville, population 17,000, has not been a straightforward undertaking. School officials more accustomed to gauging curriculum and raising funds for new buildings scrambled to meet Secret Service demands, find 2,600 hotel rooms in the region, and prepare for a lot of big-city visitors used to getting what they want before they even think to ask.

Why Centre College?

So how did a small college in a small town in the heart of Kentucky persuade the Commission on Presidential Debates to send the candidates here?

"We swung for a home run," says Centre President John Roush, who helped host a presidential debate at the University of Richmond in Virginia in 1992. "I thought it was possible, and that it would be great to bring a debate about citizenship and what it means to be an American, to a small town." Not to mention the opportunity to focus the nation's eyes for an evening on a school that is making an aggressive push to move beyond a regional to a national reputation.

Founded in 1819, Centre College has been ranked by US News & World Report as one of the top 50 liberal-arts colleges in the United States. In 1998, it was first in the nation in the rate of alumni who give (65 percent).

Centre has produced two vice presidents and two US Supreme Court justices, and more recently, Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett. In the past decade, the school has graduated one Rhodes scholar and 13 Fulbright scholars. It also has any number of alumni who have been in key positions to help the school and the town prepare for the debates - including a member of the class of 1959 who was a senior member of the Secret Service.

Politically active students

But what the school pitched most vigorously was an appealing campus in a town that many Americans can relate to, and where students are actively engaged in college life.

"A lot of my students have become involved," says Clarence Wyatt, a history professor and co-chairman of the debate steering committee. He says that the site makes sense, since Kentucky has selected winners in 17 of the last 20 elections.

But more important, the debate has provided an excellent opportunity to draw students into what he calls a "living, learning experience, a first-hand sense of drama and humanity."

As part of that on-the-scene experience, Professor Wyatt and co-chairman Richard Trollinger took students to each of the political conventions this summer. It wasn't hard to find interested parties. The campus hosts the state's largest chapters of College Republicans and College Democrats. The groups are cooperating on a voter-registration drive. Students are planning to break ground today for a Habitat for Humanity house, and will invite the candidates to hammer a nail into the structure. "Teach-ins" on various issues related to the debates are also under way.

Centre undergraduates have also helped develop a Web site devoted to the vice-presidency as part of outreach to high-schoolers around the United States. "It's dangerous to volunteer," jokes Allison Elliot, a senior who has helped with the sites and who also traveled to the Republican convention in Philadelphia.

Details, details

And then there are the details - a lesson in themselves to some.

"Transportation and cell-phones have been hard," says Ashley Sides, a senior who attended the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. She notes with a wry smile that it was necessary to increase the number of cell calls that can go through Danville to 800 - from 80. Fellow senior Julie Hewett nods, saying she was surprised how many people at the convention used cellphones simply to call from one room to the next.

Student volunteers say they value how open the school has been to their contribution. "The school is allowing students to really have a hand in the plans," Ms. Hewett says.

"They treat us almost like peers," adds Cary Hearn, also a senior. "I have eaten meals with all my professors. You miss that at larger schools. They work with us."

It's not surprising, they add, at a school where class size is typically in the teens and professors know if you're absent. "It's a culture built around putting students first," says Nayef Samhat, a professor of international relations who has woven debate-related issues into his classes.

The school, he says, "has a history of taking bright students who may not have access to expensive institutions or who haven't traveled, and giving them enormous opportunity. It has a transformative impact."

That's what the school is expecting out of the debate day - in honor of which it is canceling classes for the first time since the Civil War. And the students, while anticipating a long and challenging day, are excited about playing a small part in national history.

"On the day, we'll be running around," Ms. Sides acknowledges. "But when the election comes around, we'll say we've helped, we've been part of the process. That'll be the reward."

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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