On October 5, 2016, the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate was held right here at Longwood between Senator Tim Kaine, running mate to democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and Governor Mike Pence, running mate to republican candidate Donald Trump. The two met up and a spirited debate ensued right in our very own Willett Hall. The debate contained the standard mudslinging and pandering, Pence incorrectly called the university, “Norwood University,” and before you knew it, the debate was over and the campaign continued. What lives on to this very day, is the impact that the debate had on the Longwood community.
Dr. William Harbour, a former political science professor at Longwood weighed in on what it was like during the time of the debate. “I was totally excited. It was just an amazing piece of news. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible but it worked out.”
Harbour also spoke about the kind of impact that the debate being held here had on his department. “For a couple of years, we had increased enrollment in the major and students really seemed inspired to start following politics and keep an eye on the presidency and things like that. I think it had an impact on our department in terms of publicity.”
As many know, the 2016 election caused a lot of division all across the country, and Harbour weighed in on how the political climate of the time affected his classroom environment. “In many ways, it made it easier because students were paying more attention. The challenge was to try to be fair to different points of view so that every student in class felt comfortable sharing their opinions about the issues and the candidates.” Harbour went on to say that the debate was very positive for the university and helped improve university infrastructure.
A man who was instrumental in the planning for the debate was Vice President and Chief of Staff, Justin Pope. Pope described the process that university leadership had to go through to have the debate here. “It’s a very extensive and detailed process that takes well over a year. In the spring of 2015, we put together a detailed proposal, and I was one of the lead people in that. In September of 2015, we were chosen, and then we had to start preparing for it. We worked closely with the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Secret Service, and the television networks and I was one of the point people in that.”
Pope added that the university leadership had to take lots of steps to make sure the debate went smoothly. “We did a lot of work on IT and infrastructure upgrades. We wanted to engage with students and faculty, and leave a legacy on campus and make sure that this debate was useful for the university. The columns on the front of Willett Hall were built for the debate to make it more welcoming for the TV cameras. We did a lot of coordinating with campus police and the Secret Service to make sure everything was ok security-wise.”
Pope went on to talk about the publicity that the debate brought to Longwood. “We had 40 million people watching on TV. An independent research firm told us that the value of the publicity that we got was $83 million dollars. It served as an inspiration to university faculty and staff because if we can handle a debate, nothing else should be that hard.”
Pope added that hosting the debate was a once in a lifetime opportunity. “When I saw the students walking in, I knew it was something that they would never forget and it continues to do wonders for the university in terms of publicity. Part of that is the name recognition, but the other part is the group of people who still work here who look back very proudly at what we were able to accomplish and carry that confidence with them in whatever they are doing now.”