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Don't bypass campuses for 2016 presidential debates

Members of the audience, undecided voters as identified

Members of the audience, undecided voters as identified by Gallup, in their seats prior to the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. (Oct. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hofstra University has submitted an application to the Commission on Presidential Debates to host one of them in the 2016 election cycle. If accepted, this would be the third presidential debate on our campus.

We learned recently, however, that a presidential debate working group at the Annenberg Public Policy Center has recommended changes to the debates -- among them that they be held in TV studios, without live audiences, rather than at universities. The group argued that such moves would reduce the "spectacle" and cost of the debates, and suggested the educational value of universities hosting debates is limited.

The group is wrong and the commission should reject the inaccurate assumption that the educational benefits of hosting a presidential debate begin and end on the day of the event.

There is no better place to consider the future of our democracy than a university, home to the newest voters and future leaders. I have never witnessed more enthusiasm over prolonged periods than when we hosted two presidential debates. And the excitement resulted in more civic engagement and more discussion about education than any broadcast from a TV studio ever would.

From the moment the commission unveils debate locations, almost a year in advance, students, faculty and community become engaged in civic education. Faculty create debate-related classes -- from political science and history to environmental science and economics. Student groups host programs and debate-viewing parties, starting with the primaries. The university invites journalists, politicians, strategists and historians to discuss the issues and the election. Hofstra hosted a total of more than 100 events and special courses in 2008 and 2012, interacting with thousands of college and local K-12 students and community members.

As a debate gets closer, students sign up for internships to work with the campaigns, the debate commission and the media, and to host local, state, national and international visitors. Students attend orientations and political programs, argue the issues and run voter-registration drives. The debate itself is broadcast from a facility on campus that becomes a TV studio with a respectful and balanced audience of campaign advocates, elected officials and students. In fact, for one of the goals of the Annenberg report, the use of social media to engage more people in the debate, a college campus is a great place to start. In 2012, the Hofstra debate discussion generated 12.24 million comments on Twitter and Facebook.

Students who win a ticket lottery (more than 6,500 in each cycle) must prove they are registered voters to attend. And while there is tremendous excitement for those who can claim tickets, attendance ends up being only a part of the yearlong celebration of democracy.

What the Annenberg center calls the "spectacle" of the debate is what lights the fire in the minds of our university community: Thousands of people come together to debate and understand, to learn, argue and communicate. Democracy is not best served by voices in a soundproof studio, removed from an audience. The interaction of citizen with citizen, leader with voter, advocate with media is what creates the excitement only a national election can engender.

For a university, there is no higher purpose than the civic and intellectual education of students to prepare them for the 21st century, but also to help students become good citizens and leaders. Hosting a debate on campus gives thousands of students an opportunity to witness history while providing millions with a fair broadcast.

Stuart Rabinowitz is president of Hofstra University.


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