For Lynn U., Presidential Debate Was a Chance to Shine in National Spotlight

Lynn University was closed on Friday, as a precaution against Hurricane Sandy, which was barreling toward the region. But the campus in Boca Raton, Fla., was also recovering this week from a storm of its own making: hosting a presidential debate.

After months of intensive preparation and anticipation, the 90-minute debate on Monday came and went quickly, says Kevin M. Ross, the university’s president.

“The tens of thousands of people who came were here for about a day,” he says. “Within 24 hours of the event, everything was gone. The stage had been packed up and loaded on trucks.”

Since the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed, in 1988, colleges and universities have hosted nearly all of the presidential and vice-presidential debates between the two major parties. During that time, many large research institutions—the University of Miami, Arizona State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of California at Los Angeles—have served as debate hosts.

But in the past few campaign cycles, smaller and lesser known institutions—such as Centre College, Belmont University, and Lynn University—have sought to use the events to raise their national profiles.

With four debates under its belt—three presidential and one vice-presidential—Washington University in St. Louis claims the record for having hosted the most. Wake Forest University and now Hofstra University have each hosted two presidential debates. And Centre College hosted its second vice-presidential face-off this year.

Not that a presidential or vice-presidential debate constitutes no-brainer PR for a college.

Hosting a debate doesn’t come cheaply. Mr. Ross says that the debate at Lynn will end up costing the 2,000-student institution as much as $5-million, more than half of which has already been raised from donors.

“You don’t make money off of hosting these debates,” Mr. Ross says.

Instead, the payoff comes in the form of a publicity blitz rivaled in higher education perhaps only by the attention that big-time college sports attract. In front of a television audience of tens of millions of people, the debate moderator, and usually the two candidates, mention the university’s name at the beginning of the debate—and, with luck, maybe during their closing remarks as well.

For Lynn, which over the course of its 50-year history has had two other names, hosting the debate was a chance to “tell our story,” Mr. Ross says. News-media outlets mentioned Lynn some 20,000 times on the day of the debate, he says, citing a statistic provided by the public-relations firm the university hired for the debate.

Mr. Ross himself was out in front of the cameras publicizing the university. He began his 22-hour day being interviewed by the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and ended it by speaking with Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, in the post-debate spin room.

The later appearance, though, seemed to be an exercise in the maxim that any publicity is good publicity. Standing next to Mr. Ross for a comedy bit that was shown on The Conan O’Brien Show, the puppet quipped that the institution was “a great safety school for kids who don’t get into clown college.”

While all of the increased publicity may translate into a modest increase in applications, Mr. Ross says that the debate also leaves behind several tangible benefits for the university. For instance, the university will keep 100 computers that were donated by Lenovo, one of the vendors with which it contracted for the event.

To support the thousands of members of the news media covering the debate, the university had to build a separate information-technology infrastructure that was roughly twice as large as its existing network. That project, which involved laying some 70 miles of cable, will be “a windfall” for upgrading the university’s IT offerings, sharply increasing the speed and capabilities of its network.

From meeting the technology challenges to wading through the security logistics for the event, “it was fascinating to watch the amount of teamwork it required,” Mr. Ross says. “Over all this turned out to be a remarkable moment for us.”

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