Centre College Aims to Exceed Expectations When it Hosts VP Debate

Sep 20, 2012

When you visit the campus of Centre College in Danville, you can’t help but notice C6-H0 painted on buildings inside and out.  The year was 1921 when Centre nabbed an athletic triumph that some called the greatest upset of the first-half of the 20th century.

"Centre College went up to Cambridge, Massachusetts to play Harvard, which was then the number one powerhouse.  They were the number one football team three years in a row.  Centre went up to Cambridge and beat them 6-0.  Everyone was so excited that they painted C6-H0 everywhere," explains Communications Director Dr. Michael Strysick.

Centre has scored again, so to speak.  The liberal arts college in the heart of Kentucky's Bluegrass region will host its second vice-presidential debate on October 11th.  In 2000, Centre hosted the VP debate between Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. 

So what is it about this small-town school that has made it such an attraction for high-profile political events? Dr. Richard Trollinger says Centre has always been a small college that thinks and acts big.

"It's just part of our DNA that we like to do things that exceed normal expectation," says Richard Trollinger, Vice President for College Relations at Centre and co-chair of the debate steering committee.

While the school boasts of that football win of 1921, Centre College has a rich political history too.  Founded in 1819, Centre is the alma mater of two vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices, and is the smallest school to ever host a general election debate in one of the smallest communities.  While preparing for the October debate has been a challenge, Dr. Trollinger says experience is the best teacher.

"It's been easier in the sense we know more about what we are doing.  We were climbing such a steep learning curve every day in 2000.  There was so much we had to learn about the technical needs in particular," Trollinger adds.

Shane Wilson is Coordinator of Network Services on campus.  He’s been working since November making sure all the technical aspects are in place for the hoards of national and international media.  He spoke to WKU Public Radio inside Sutcliffe Hall, which has been converted into a media filing center.

"What we had to actually do was build a small data center.  All the buildings used on campus for the debate will feed to this one room and all of the internet connections, phone services, etc., are all coming out of this room temporarily," explains Wilson.

The media filing center is the size of three basketball courts and contains 550 work stations just for print media alone.  On the next floor up is spin alley.  It’s quiet today, but on October 11th, the atmosphere will be electric with surrogates defending their candidates and their debate performance.

The Norton Center for the Arts houses the 1,500-seat debate hall.  Close to half of the seats have been taken out to build platforms for the major television networks. 

"In a sense what happens to any auditorium that hosts a general election debate is that you're turning that space into a giant television studio," says Dr. Clarence Wyatt, a history professor and special assistant to the president.  Wyatt also serves as the other debate committee co-chair. 

Wayne King, Director of Facilities Management, can attest to all the strict guidelines that come with hosting a debate. 

"We're adding air conditioning to the stage.  We have to have 65 degrees where the candidates are standing.  Can't get any warmer, even will all the show lights that are being added," explains King.  "The audience can't be any warmer than 68 degrees.  The candidate cannot sweat and they cannot have their hair blowing.  If they do, we have failed."

Someone else who knows the ends and outs of debate hosting is Les Fugate,who in 2000, was president of College Republicans at Centre.

"I was in the debate hall.  I got to watch the debate, and then I went over to spin alley and was part of the response team.  I gave the college student response," says Fugate.

For the young man who wanted to be a college president, the debate experience led him in another direction.

"It's a lot of connections that you'll make with people in the different campaigns and news media, a lot of access to do different things you normally wouldn't get to do," he says.  "And what happened for me, I did all these interviews so often that when a friend of mine ran for office and won, he needed someone to be his director of communications, and as he said he couldn't afford someone with experience, so I was the next guy because he remembered me doing all those interviews."

That friend who hired Fugate for was then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

Twelve years later, a new crop of student politicos are waiting for doors to open.  Donovan Whiteside spent the summer interning in Washington.  Now Washington is coming to him.  As a Government major, the debate is naturally exciting for him, but Whiteside likes how students less interested in politics are tuned in.

"You can read and hear about a lot of these events, but when you have such an international event right here in front of you, it's really amazing for the students to see this firsthand where you have the Secret Service and media from around the world," exclaimed Whiteside.

Luke Wetton is president of Centre College Republicans.  He says the upcoming debate has helped revive what was largely an inactive organization.

"We're bringing it back.  Students obviously are excited because we're going to have one of the biggest political events in the country in our backyard," say Wetton.  My hope is even after the election we still have students that are interested and engaged in what's going on."

Wetton loves to get into a good argument over politics with David Miller, president of Centre College Democrats, but the two students are friends and respect each other's vastly different political views. Miller says nearly the entire student body of 1,300 has signed a civility pledge, which the school hopes Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will also sign.

"The campus, particularly the student body, felt that it wasn't necessary, but a good step to take to say to the candidates 'We'd like for you guys to talk about the issues in an intellectual way that we don't have to resort to name calling," says Miller.

Some students will be lucky enough to get a seat inside the debate hall.  The Commission on Presidential Debates will give the school a small amount of tickets, which will be distributed through a lottery.

"What we did in 2000 and plan to do again is conduct a lottery.  We will get as many students as possible into the debate hall, explains Trollinger.  "It wouldn't be something that we would be interested in doing if we didn't think it also served the educational mission of the college"

Hosting the 2000 debate ushered in a decade of unprecedented progress at the college, including a $100 million in new construction.

"In addition to those things made possible by increased giving, we've had an increase in the number of out of state applications every year since 2000," he says.

For debate co-chairs Richard Trollinger and Clarence Wyatt, hosting not once, but twice, is an overwhelming vote of confidence.

"Part of the reason we do this is that it provides opportunities for telling the Centre story to a much larger audience.  It's not easy for a small undergraduate teaching institution in central Kentucky to tell its story to the rest of the nation," according to Trollinger.  "Richard talks about some of the quantitative indications about a spirit it brought to this place.  I think it has created an even greater sense that there's nothing this place can't do," adds Wyatt.

In the words of Trollinger, "when we put our best foot forward, the shoe has been polished."