Staging presidential debate no small endeavor

No debate about that, DU’s David Greenberg says
The Colorado Statesman

David Greenberg, the vice chancellor for institutional partnerships at the University of Denver, was hired on Nov. 1, 2011 — one day after the university was selected to host the first presidential debate of the election season. On his first day at his new job, Greenberg — a founding partner of the communications firm GBSM and Associates as well as the founder and chair of the Denver Schools of Science and Technology — was handed a 20-page contract and told to finalize the selection.

“I walk in the door and they give me this 20-page very technical contract and said get it done,” explained Greenberg, who has become the de facto project manager for the presidential debate.

“It’s not my day job,” Greenberg added of his inherited task to manage the politically pivotal live debate.

The event is scheduled for Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. at Magness Arena, where PBS NewsHour Executive Editor Jim Lehrer will moderate the event. The debate is expected to focus on domestic issues, with topics including the economy, health care, the role of government and governing.


A calm exterior belies all that DU Vice Chancellor of Institutional Partnerships David Greenberg must juggle as the project manager for the Oct. 3 Presidential Debate.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The political theater that DU will host is the first presidential debate to be hosted by a university in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region.

Despite Greenberg’s official position at the university, he has embraced his important secondary role, putting together the logistics for a debate that could bring as many as 12,000 people to the DU campus, including more than 4,000 national and international journalists who will broadcast the event to an audience estimated at more than 80 million thanks to print, broadcast, network and live stream Internet coverage.

Presidential debates are the second-most watched events in America, according to Greenberg, only surpassed by the Super Bowl, which comes in at around 111 million viewers.

Given that pressure, it’s no surprise that he has been waking in the middle of the night from nightmares associated with orchestrating the event. Much of the anxiety stems from the unknown — uncertainty around weather, failing technology and last-minute security directives that will be given by the Secret Service, to name just a few.

“There’s a ton of stuff that we don’t know,” acknowledged Greenberg. “But we have a 27-person organizational team within DU, and they’re all people with day jobs, but they’re all doing really great jobs and they’re getting it done.”

The reason so much has been unknown is because the Commission on Presidential Debates handles most of the logistical directives. But despite the uncertainties, the university has been able to move forward with the majority of its planning. Many of the details were already envisioned when it began its application process in March 2011. The University of Denver competed with 11 other schools at the time to host the debate.

As part of the application process, the Commission on Presidential Debates set forth a detailed list of logistical criteria in order to qualify, including having an air-conditioned hall of at least 17,000 square feet; nearby parking that can accommodate 30 television satellite and news trucks; and a minimum of a 20,000-square-foot media filing center, known as “spin alley.”

All the requirements are meant to prevent a technical glitch similar to the 1976 sound outage debacle that halted for 27 minutes the first debate between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter.

“That means that we need to… create a set of redundant systems,” explained Greenberg, noting that there are backup systems for everything, including power, data, broadband and Wi-Fi.

“Logistically, it’s a real technical challenge, and it’s taken about 10 months of planning to figure out how to do it,” he added.

The impact to DU

In addition to the logistical concerns, DU was also required to raise $1.65 million to host the event, which the university has been collecting through donations and sponsors.

Kevin Carroll, vice chancellor of the division of marketing and communications, says the university is ready to take on the challenge, noting that having a spotlight on the university could impact enrollment and fundraising efforts for years to come.

“A lot of people in the national and international scene know of us, but they don’t know very much about us,” he said. “So, this is really a great opportunity for us to talk about ourselves a little bit, while thousands of media are here to cover the debate.”

Kim DeVigil, a spokeswoman for DU, said hosting the debate helps the public good, something in which the university strongly believes.

“It aligns perfectly with our vision of being a great university dedicated to the public good… and it’s a once in a lifetime experience for our students, our faculty, our staff, as well as for our community,” she said.

University of Denver student leader Parker Calbert agreed.

“Our student body was both excited and thrilled to be hosting this presidential debate for two reasons: First, because we get to show off our university and the caliber of our student body… The second reason… is because it is an interesting year, both in the political realm, and… as Colorado and our situation amongst the political dynamics,” said Calbert, who is studying political science at DU. “Our students are eager and ready to engage in the issues.”

Carroll also believes that the choice of his university to host the debate was no accident, pointing out the importance of Colorado as a battleground state that could swing the election.

“The fact that we were chosen I think is indicative of a couple of things: First, is Colorado, of course, as a swing state, and I think that the West is becoming increasingly important in the electorate process…” said Carroll. “It’s also indicative of both Denver and the University of Denver as rising stars in the national and international scene.”

Ticketing, DebateFest and other related events

But the reality is that very few people are going to get to see the event live and up close at the “rising star” University of Denver.

The Commission on Presidential Debates decides how many tickets are available for the event, who gets what allotment of tickets and how tickets are distributed. The commission has already said that there will not be tickets available to the general public.

A limited number of tickets may be made available to students, and if that is the case, a lottery will decide who gets them. It will be held at 9:45 a.m. on Oct. 1 on the green outside the northern end of the Driscoll Student Center. Students do not need to be present to be eligible for the drawing. Notifications will be sent via e-mail.

Tickets are limited for presidential debates because the commission places priorities on the campaigns themselves, the universities that host the debates and their own needs.

Knowing that tickets would be hard to come by, the university has planned alternative viewing for those who want to watch the debate live on a big screen outside at an event scheduled for the day called DebateFest.

“It’s really an extraordinary opportunity to really bring the university together,” said Winter Wall Walker, a project coordinator for the debate and its related activities.

On the day of the debate, the university will host a free, ticketed outside event starting at 3 p.m. on Carnegie Green (off University Boulevard), which will include food trucks, live local music and an area where people can discuss a wide berth of political issues.

Admission for the event is already full, limited to 5,000 people, according to university officials.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Gov. John Hickenlooper and University of Denver Chancellor Dr. Robert Coombe are also expected to give remarks at the outdoor event.

The event will be followed by a live, outdoor telecast of the debate itself.

“This is a really unique experience, and an opportunity for diverse viewpoints to come together in an atmosphere of respect and civility to watch this incredible experience,” added Walker.

An ongoing series of lectures, salons and other events throughout September are all leading up to the highly anticipated debate.

For example, on Oct. 1 there will be a screening of the documentary Patriocracy, as well as a screening on the same day of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

For more information on the up-coming events — which are constantly evolving — visit Debate2012.du.edu.

Traffic and parking

University officials say parking will be limited on campus to visiting media and other event personnel on Oct. 3, so those attending are encouraged to find alternative transportation. The university is providing a free bicycle valet service to accommodate pedestrians on bikes.

The Regional Transportation District may offer light rail alternatives as well, but it is entirely possible that the Secret Service will close nearby stations, causing detours and massive delays.

Motorists are also advised to use alternative routes if traveling in the area, as part of University Boulevard may be closed due to security and logistics. Directives could change at any time, but it is likely that Buchtel Boulevard will be closed between University and South High Street. East Asbury Avenue may likely be closed as well from University to South High, and portions of I-25 could also be affected.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com