The presidential debate cycle is heating up and, for the first time since 2012, St. Louis won’t be a part of it. Washington University announced in April that it won’t host a 2020 debate, missing out on the unique opportunity to shine a global spotlight on both the university and the entire St. Louis area.
Despite hosting five debates in its history, the most by any institution, the school cited a number of reasons for not bringing another debate to campus. There’s the cost, which newly selected Chancellor Andrew Martin estimated at a minimum of $7 million. There’s the inconvenience of closed off campus buildings and streets. There’s the thousands of journalists and loads of construction.
Washington University is correct — hosting a national debate is a hassle. But a debate is well worth the temporary hassle, an experience that students, staff members, organizers and community members will remember for the rest of their lives. And for a school that has a $7.5 billion endowment and recently spent $240 million on expanding campus, the $7 million price tag doesn’t look so big.
Instead, Martin argued the school will look to point the money in a “better” direction and generate the same level of energy without the high cost of a debate, according to the campus newspaper, Student Life.
But there is no replicating a presidential debate. It is the Washington University version of “college game day,” Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Lori White, told the newspaper. Except this college game day doesn’t happen every Saturday. It happens once every four years. And now it’s not happening at all.
Despite upwards of 50 million viewers tuning into these debates, the benefits don’t always show up in the financial report. Former Vice Chancellor Steve Givens, who has helped organize multiple debates at Washington University, saw an increase in student “civic engagement” as a result of the debates. The school has also had a bump in applicants, although it’s unclear if it is a direct result of the debates.
There are economic payoffs as well. Florida’s Lynn University, which hosted in 2012, estimated that the school and surrounding community received nearly $64 million in publicity. Longwood University saw its number of alumni donors jump by 25% after holding the 2016 vice presidential debate.
And don’t forget about St. Louis. Lynn University estimated that the debate brought $13.1 million to the surrounding Palm Beach County. Hosting the world’s biggest names in journalism and politics brings an invaluable amount of positive attention to St. Louis.
Although the school can’t change its mind about the 2020 debate, administrators can still rethink future opportunities. Washington University shouldn’t end this showcase tradition. It’s not only an investment in the school but an investment in the entire St. Louis community.