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Small campus in Florida prepares for a big role in debates

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When Lynn University began the application process to host a presidential debate, school President Kevin Ross was hopeful, but realistic.

"We thought perhaps we'll be passed over this first year and they'll say 'try again, guys.' Or, perhaps we get the [vice presidential] debate, and we would've been thrilled," Mr. Ross said Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Times reporters and editors.

In the end, the Commission on Presidential Debates chose the small institution in Boca Raton, Fla., as the site of the final presidential duel, set for Oct. 22.

"Since that time, we've been running around with our hair on fire," Mr. Ross said. "There are definitely people on campus who are stretched thin but we've pulled off big events before."

Founded in 1962, Lynn University is the youngest school to host a debate and the second-smallest behind Centre College in Danville, Ky., which will host the vice presidential debate Oct. 11.

The suburban campus, home to more than 2,000 students from 40 states and more than 80 countries, continues to undergo transformations to make it suitable for a debate. For example, the school must have the technology in place to support the thousands of journalists and campaign staffers — most armed with laptops, smartphones and tablets — descending on Boca Raton next month.

To meet those demands, the school is digging into its own pockets. Mr. Ross said about $2.5 million of the needed $5 million has already come in the form of donations and gifts. The remainder will come out of university accounts, with the exception of $150,000 in support from Palm Beach County.

"Beyond that, we're kind of on our own on this," Mr. Ross said.

The school is using the debate not just as a way to boost its profile, but also to help teach elementary and high school students the ways of American politics. Lynn University developed a first-of-its-kind "2012 Debate Curriculum," available for download through Apple's iTunes U.

Schools can download the teaching tools for free.

"It's a big civics lesson," Mr. Ross said of the debate, adding that he and others have grown increasingly concerned about students' lack of knowledge of American civics, politics and election processes.

"We're not just going to lament this problem. Here's a curriculum to fix it," he said.

To engage the university community, Mr. Ross said the school has given away as many tickets as possible to students; he even voluntarily gave up his own passes.

It's a key example of how Mr. Ross and other school leaders view the opportunity they've been given — not as a high-water mark for the university, but instead as a chance to showcase the quality of their institution and to be a part of history.

In the future, universities angling to host presidential debates should be sure they are ready for the necessary work, Mr. Ross said.

A school should seek a debate only "if you're in a position to do it and you've got a campus that's willing to take on a challenge," he said. "A challenge that's not just for a few people but for an entire campus. You can't do these things and have half your campus say it isn't a good idea, or it doesn't mean anything to them. Our job is to be good hosts for a conversation about our future."

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