Longwood officials hope the Kaine-Pence debate will lift the university’s profile. (Photo courtesy Longwood University)
Abigail Stanzione, a junior at Longwood University from Henrico County, says she has repeatedly answered the same set of questions over the past few years.
Where do you go to college?
She can’t wait till the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate, when U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Republican Gov. Mike Pence will debate on campus, with America and the world watching. In 2012, 51 million people tuned in to the vice presidential debate. “It’s great for Longwood. It’s getting our name out there,” Stanzione says.
Even though Longwood is the third oldest public college in Virginia — founded in 1839 — its rural setting 66 miles west of Richmond has stymied the efforts of successive college administrators to give it higher name recognition. University officials, students and alumni hope the debate will bring more attention. Applications already have surged 32 to 33 percent over the past three years. The coeducational liberal arts university hopes to gradually add about 1,000 students to its enrollment of approximately 5,000 by 2025.
Longwood anticipates that the cost of staging the debate will be about $5.5 million, including a major upgrade to technology and internet access.
Relying on data from previous vice presidential debates, university officials project that the college might receive about $50 million worth of media coverage, with the help of the 2,000 to 3,000 journalists who are expected to descend on the community.
Besides filling all lodging for miles around, the journalists from news outlets across the globe will put the Farmville area under the microscope.
Town Manager Gerald Spates says more than 300 police officers from across the state will patrol the town of 8,000 residents and help provide security to the debaters. Spates is renting 15 recreational vehicles, to be parked near the center of town, for state troopers on duty. Town officials say they received $134,000 from the state to help with debate-related expenses.
Longwood officials say Farmville is distinguished by the fact that it is the nation’s oldest two-college town, boasting both Longwood and nearby Hampden-Sydney College, a private, all-male institution.
In preparation for the debate, Longwood is advancing some of the construction projects envisioned in its master plan, including a new entrance to the campus — the High Street Gateway. It also is installing a new façade and making other improvements to Willett Hall, the home to Longwood basketball, where the debate will be staged.
The idea for holding a political debate of national consequence at Longwood was born in the classroom. University President W. Taylor Reveley IV teaches a course on the American presidency each fall, partnering with a member of the university’s faculty.
“The close of the Civil War, the start of the civil rights movement — that’s powerful poetry.” —W. Taylor Reveley IV, Longwood president
In 1976, the College of William & Mary hosted the debate between then-President Gerald Ford, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. In 1992, the University of Richmond was the setting for a debate between then-President George H.W. Bush, a Republican; Bill Clinton, a Democrat; and Ross Perot, the Reform Party candidate.
In the fall of 2014, as Reveley led his class in a discussion of Virginia’s connection with presidential debates, the conversation shifted to the question of whether having a presidential debate was something Longwood could do. As the weeks rolled on, Reveley began thinking about the idea, then took the proposal to the Board of Visitors’ executive committee, which was enthusiastic in its approval.
As it turned out, Longwood had a story to offer the Commission on Presidential Debates that helped turn the tide in its favor.
“Longwood stands at a remarkable historical crossroads,” Reveley says, “with the Civil War having drawn to a close along the north end of our campus in 1865, and the civil rights movement having begun one mile away in 1951 along the south end.”
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his first letter from Farmville asking retreating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to surrender. Less than a century later, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led students out of all-black Moton High School in 1951 to protest inferior conditions. (Editor's note: The students' actions led to a court case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which became part of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. During Virginia's Massive Resistance era, Prince Edward County became the state's last holdout against integration, keeping its schools closed for five years.)
Many historians believe that Johns’ protest signaled the start of the desegregation movement in the United States.
“The close of the Civil War, the start of the civil rights movement — that’s powerful poetry,” says Reveley.
So, why didn’t Longwood try to get a presidential debate? Reveley explains that the Commission on Presidential Debates doesn’t permit institutions to specify what they want. But he’s happy with the debate that Longwood was awarded. “In prior election cycles, it’s often the vice presidential debate that really stands out, and one of the reasons it does is because there’s only one of them,” Reveley says. There are three scheduled debates between the presidential contenders.
Elizabeth Kostelny, a 1981 alumna and CEO of Preservation Virginia, says the debate will highlight Longwood’s history of academic excellence, and the fact that Kaine, a fellow Richmonder, is one of the debaters only contributes to its appeal. Having the event in a small town also is significant, she says. “I think it says a lot about America, and the potential of America.”