Borrowing lyrics from the musical “Hamilton,” one could say, “History had its eyes on the U,” last Wednesday night, Oct. 7, for the lone vice presidential debate of the 2020 election. Nearly 60 million viewers tuned in to watch Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris face off live in Kingsbury Hall—making it the second most-watched vice presidential debate ever.
“The eyes of the world were on our campus and the University of Utah delivered,” said Jason Perry, vice president for government relations and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “Hosting the debate was a massive undertaking, and we’ve never been more proud of our campus community.”
The U was announced as the venue for the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate in October 2019. Campus has been abuzz with planning ever since, ranging from implementing robust safety and security protocols to running student involvement initiatives to preparing large-scale PR and marketing efforts—all while trying to plan around an unpredictable pandemic.
Setting the stage
In August, starting with the window wraps covering 5,000 square feet of the exterior of the Marriott Library, campus started to physically transform with more red, white and blue appearing daily. In the weeks leading up to the event, a 14,000-square-foot media filing center tent was constructed on the lawn in front of the Park Building along with a 50-foot-tall covered media platform in front of Kingsbury Hall.
An estimated 180,000 linear feet of copper (for power) and 200,000 linear feet of fiber (for internet bandwidth) were used in the temporary complex built within the fenced-off area of Presidents Circle. (Fun fact: The fiber cord is going to be repurposed throughout campus buildings in need of IT upgrades.) Interestingly, the infrastructure that took the university and its various partners about a year to plan and about a month to build and install, will be dismantled in a matter of days.
“Watching the planning and execution from beginning to end is a real testament to the concept of ‘One U’,” said Rob Patton, senior account executive with University Marketing & Communications and head of the communications and marketing efforts for the debate. “The university has so many internal resources and expertise such as health, safety, marketing, event planning, IT, government relations, etc. And they all worked together to make this event a success.”
In the minutes leading up to the debate, President Ruth Watkins and the U’s student body presidency took to the stage to welcome the world to campus. “This is the first time Utah has been the site of an election debate, and we are thrilled that so many will get to know our state and university through this occasion,” said Watkins.
She then proceeded to share what Michelle Valdes, vice president for student relations, said she wanted the world to know about the U: “That this is a place for everyone from any background to come and accomplish extraordinary things.”
Harris and Pence—joined by a now Twitter-famous fly—then went on to vigorously debate topics ranging from the economy to climate change to social justice to peaceful transfer of power. The two were approximately 13 feet apart and separate by a plexiglass barrier.
About 4,000 U students entered the raffle to watch the event live from inside the Nancy Peery Marriott Auditorium at Kingsbury Hall—and 60 lucky students won the coveted seats. There were fewer than 200 guests allowed in the venue, all required to physically distance and wear face coverings. Another 300 students were involved as volunteers before, during and after the debate (more on that here).
Just outside the perimeter of Presidents Circle, a crowd of several hundred people gathered throughout the afternoon and evening, some to protest and others to rally. Before the debate began, U students representing their favored political groups marched to show support for their affiliated candidates. Behind the scenes, there was a significant law enforcement presence on campus.
“Our police, security and emergency services staff worked closely with local, state and federal officials on a detailed security plan,” said Marlon Lynch, the U’s chief safety officer. “Although we were ready for any contingency, we’re grateful the debate was uneventful from a public safety perspective.”
And even though the overall number of visitors was significantly reduced because of COVID-19, an estimated 2,500 people came to Salt Lake City for the debate, including members of the media, campaign officials, security and representatives of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Downtown Alliance estimated that visitors would spend millions while visiting Salt Lake for the debate—good news for the downtown economy.
Even though the physical signs of the event are disappearing from campus, the impact of hosting this historic debate will no doubt live on.
“This was an amazing opportunity for our students,” said Perry. “From the volunteers to the ticket holders, our students gained a greater appreciation for the political process and because of this event we hope they will stay engaged long after graduation.”
Students have already been benefiting from curriculum influenced by the university’s first-hand involvement in hosting the Vice Presidential Debate. In fact, recordings of several upcoming political science courses will air on C-SPAN’s “Lecture in History” series in the next couple of months.
The U’s social media feeds were filled with unforgettable pictures of students showing off their debate swag, volunteering in various capacities, competing for bingo prizes during the debate and connecting with other students and alumni around the world through virtual watch parties.
“I want to express my gratitude to everyone who had a part in making this historic moment happen on our campus,” said Watkins. “I’m especially grateful that our students got this once-in-a-lifetime experience to fully engage in the democratic process.”
When asked what she hopes students take away from the experience, Watkins said ASUU President Ephraim Kum’s comment, shared the night of the debate, summed it up best:
“I hope that we [students] will feel empowered to make our voices heard and our presence known and the hope that we recognize the power and potential we have to act, to make a difference in our communities, and in all spheres of influence.”