Three of Hofstra University’s notable and wealthy alumni are footing most of the $5 million cost of the first presidential debate of 2016, university President Stuart Rabinowitz said this week.
Longtime backers of the Hempstead institution Peter S. Kalikow and David S. Mack, both real estate developers, and Lawrence Herbert, former chief executive of Pantone Inc., already have given or have pledged funds so the university can host the event on Sept. 26.
“Let’s face it, we have extremely successful and generous alums who are committed to this university,” Rabinowitz said. “I feel blessed as a president that I can pick up the phone and rely on them.”
The highly anticipated showdown between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump will bring international attention to the university. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson also could be included; the former New Mexico governor must score an average of 15 percent support in the most recent major polls after Labor Day to be invited.
The three donors are key in the effort because the private, nonprofit school does not want to use revenue from student tuition to finance the event, Rabinowitz said.
Last week, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates notified Hofstra officials that the event would be moved there after Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, backed out, citing financial and security concerns. Wright State, a public university, has a $27.7 million budget deficit, according to news reports, and also had worries about its ability to secure its open-access campus.
Hofstra had agreed in September 2015 to serve as an alternate site for the 2016 debates. The university is to become the only school to host presidential debates in three consecutive presidential election cycles — Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain faced off there in 2008, and Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
Rabinowitz said he had donor commitments before applying to the commission, based in Washington, D.C., to be a debate location.
“You don’t take something like this on unless you have the money in hand,” he said.
Institutions must pay the commission $1.9 million when they apply. While costs associated with the event have risen slightly, Rabinowitz said, the university will be able to reuse some of the equipment it purchased for the 2008 and 2012 debates.
“When Stuart says ‘Help us’ — we can’t refuse,” said Kalikow, 73, of Purchase in Westchester County, according to voter records. “It’s a big deal to me and it’s a big deal for the school.”
Kalikow — president of H.J. Kalikow & Co., a midtown Manhattan real estate firm, former owner and publisher of the New York Post and a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — sponsors Hofstra’s seminars on American presidents. He was one of several donors to the 2008 presidential debate at his alma mater.
In October 2015, he pledged $10 million to fund Hofstra’s new undergraduate school of public policy and government studies.
School officials said the Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs, which officially opens with the fall semester, means Hofstra has a defined, built-in student population set to benefit from the debate experience.
Mack, 74, of Great Neck, is a senior partner in The Mack Company, a real estate firm, and senior director of the Mack-Cali Realty Corp., based in Edison, New Jersey, and one of the largest real estate investment firms in the Northeast. He is a former vice chairman of the MTA and a former commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
A longtime booster of Hofstra, Mack and his wife, Sondra, have several buildings on campus and programs that bear their names, including the David S. Mack Sports & Exhibition Complex, where the debate will take place. Mack was the major donor of the 2012 presidential debate at the school, officials said.
Herbert, 87, of Palm Beach, Florida, is the inventor of the Pantone color matching system. He gave the university an undisclosed gift in 2013 to establish the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. Pantone Inc. is headquartered in Carlstadt, New Jersey.
Mack and Herbert were not available for interviews, Hofstra officials said.
University officials do not yet know how many tickets, which are allotted by the commission, will be available for the debate. The school will reserve 15 tickets for students from Wright State and will hold a lottery for Hofstra students for the remaining tickets. More than 300 student volunteers will staff the event.
The debate experience will bring together students from various disciplines, including political science, history, rhetoric and communication, university administrators and educators said.
“Part of the reason we do this is for the educational program that runs up to the debate,” Rabinowitz said. “We think it will be a robust program, but in a three-week time period rather than spread out over the course of an academic year.”
The fall semester at Hofstra begins on Sept. 6, so there are 14 days that classes are in session before the big day.
Meena Bose, political science professor and executive dean of Hofstra’s Kalikow government school, said the school is planning something for each of those days.
The first debate of an election cycle always gets the most viewers — and even more so this year, because the Democratic and Republican candidates are “making history for their respective parties,” Bose said.
“The 2016 election is definitely a major election in American politics, and this will be a definitive election for politics and policymaking,” she said. “People just can’t get enough. It’s been very exciting to watch. It’s a wonderful time to be studying the presidency.”