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As 2024 nears, Lafayette College prepares for 'iconic' moment in American politics

Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd, Ph. D.
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd stands in the grandstands of Fisher Stadium at the college on Wednesday, Dec, 20, 2023. Behind her is Kirby Sports Center, which will host the 2024 U.S. Vice Presidential debate.

EASTON, Pa. — For a few hours on Sept. 25, 2024, countless eyes will turn their attention to two candidates who want to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Over an international broadcast, two vice presidential candidates will plead their cases for why their ticket should steer America for the next four years.

All of this will happen at Lafayette College, potentially drawing millions of dollars of economic activity to the Lehigh Valley and introducing College Hill to many students thinking about where they want to receive their higher education.

"We were really excited to raise our hand and very honored when they chose us," Nicole Hurd, president of Lafayette College, said in an interview last week.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced last month the hosts for next year's three presidential debates and a single vice presidential debate. However, the news release did not go into detail about how this decision came about or what it will mean to the four hosts. This is a look at how Lafayette landed what could become a critical moment in the 2024 election cycle.

The selection process

While nationally televised presidential debates have become a staple of American politics, they're a relatively recent addition. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off in the first one back in 1960, but there wasn't another for 16 years. The CPD was formed in 1980 and has hosted at least two debates every cycle since.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair and co-founder of the CPD, said the bipartisan organization invites dozens of colleges and universities to host the debates. While the hosts have to make their facilities available and provide space for an army of out-of-towners, they don't need to prepare questions or negotiate directly with the candidates.

The CPD doesn't disclose the number of applicants each year or which schools get rejected, but Fahrenkopf said the commission typically has 15 to 30 institutions to choose from most years.

Several factors go into the selection process with security high on the list, Fahrenkopf said. Because the future president and vice president are all but guaranteed to be in attendance, the Secret Service reviews the applicants' facilities and determines which ones can be secured.

Infrastructure, on campus and in the region, also plays a critical role. The debate facility needs to be large enough to comfortably seat an audience of several thousand people and accommodate the television broadcast. The host facility also needs to be able to support a media center, either in the building or somewhere else on campus. The press corps and campaigns need to be able to get to the debate, too, so having airports nearby is a priority.

Once those factors are reviewed, the committee looks at the schools that scored well and considers their options. Fahrenkopf said the committee tries to spread the love by picking hosts in the West, South, Midwest, and East, though this can be limited by who applies.

Committee members are also mindful of the boost a debate can provide. Once debates are announced, the hosts tend to see a rise in student applications, alumni donations and community support, he said.

"It's a very positive experience for the schools that are chosen. That's why we try to find new ones," Fahrenkopf said. "As it worked out, Lafayette was one that hadn't hosted before."

A moment 200 years in the making

Hurd became Lafayette's 18th president in July 2021. Like the rest of the world, the college was emerging from the pandemic and looking for ways to restore a sense of community after students spent much of the past year participating in remote classes. Once the idea of applying for the debate was floated, school leadership immediately saw its potential.

Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd, Ph. D.
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd speaks during an interview in her office at the college on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. The 2024 U.S. Vice Presidential debate will be held at campus' Kirby Sports Center in September.

While the debate would focus on the candidates and the 2024 election, the coverage would introduce Lafayette College to people across the planet. Past hosts have seen student applications spike after a debate, and it motivates alumni to reach out to their alma mater, Fahrenkopf said. Hurd said the college determined that hosting a debate would have the same effect as a $50 million marketing campaign for the school.

"I think everybody at the table was very excited this would be one way to really amplify Lafayette and participate in what I think is an iconic part of our American democratic process," she said.

Hurd appeared before the CPD and delivered a three-pronged case for why Lafayette College should host one of their debates. For starters, the college sits at a political epicenter of American politics, she said. Northampton County is a national bellwether, having supported the winning president in all but three races in the past 100 years. Its congressional district, PA-7, is one of just a few dozen toss-ups in the nation that can decide which party controls the U.S. House. Few places in the country can boast of that political pedigree.

Secondly, the election would come during the bicentennial of the Marquis de Lafayette's grand tour of the United States, Hurd noted. After nearly 40 turbulent years in Europe — including time as a French lawmaker, military officer, and prisoner of war — George Washington's former aide returned to the United States in 1824 to see how the American experiment had progressed in his absence.

As one of the last surviving founding fathers, Lafayette was feted a hero at every stop over the 10-month journey. While he didn't visit Easton, the national celebration inspired the citizens of Northampton County to establish a college in his name. By 1832, they persuaded the Manual Labor Academy of Pennsylvania in Germantown to relocate to Easton and take the name Lafayette College. Hosting the debate on the 200th anniversary of a prominent election would be a fitting tribute to the democratic ideals he bled for.

Finally, Hurd said the debates complemented the college's goal of furthering civil discourse. Modern politics has at times devolved into name-calling and partisanship, but the debates provide an opportunity for candidates to inspire or make their case to the American public. That complements the efforts of the student group Lafayette Votes, a non-partisan organization that tries to involve more students in the democratic process. It's seen some success, helping drive up voter turnout by 20% between the 2016 and 2020 elections, Hurd said. The goal, she said, is to turn off the heat of national politics while shining a light on the issues that matter to the young minds the college is fostering.

"We've got this beautiful story of our founding vision around the Marquis de Lafayette's belief in democracy, and then we have these students who are actually doing the work of democracy. And then we obviously have faculty teaching in this area. What better campus to host this debate in 2024 than Lafayette?" she said.

The pitch worked. Fahrenkopf, who did not sit in on Hurd's presentation, called Hurd to deliver the good news. It was actually a reconnection for the two. As a child, Hurd's family briefly lived in Reno, Nevada. Her family wound up living down the street from the Fahrenkopfs and she would play with his daughters. Hurd said the two didn't interact during the application process and that Fahrenkopf didn't know of her role at Lafayette until he was tasked with calling the selected colleges' presidents.

"I used to dress up as Princess Leia in his basement," Hurd said.

Preparing for the moment

With Lafayette now finalized as the host for the vice presidential debate, the next nine months will be spent preparing for the big event. But one of the bigger questions has been if the candidates will even participate.

The RNC announced its withdrawal from the CPD, reviving its complaints that it's biased against Republicans. Former President Donald Trump lambasted the commission in 2020 after it amended its rules and added a mute button for the final debate. The decision came after Trump repeatedly violated the debate's ground rules by interrupting Democratic opponent Joe Biden throughout the first debate.

But Fahrenkopf, a former chair of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan administration, said he's convinced the debates will continue as planned. Trump, who has a commanding lead in the polls to become the Republican nominee, has salivated for the chance of a rematch against Biden even while insisting the CPD is corrupt and terrible. It helps that the commission has always been independent of the national parties and negotiates directly with the candidates, Fahrenkopf said.

"It's very hard to withdraw from something that you've never been part of," he said.

For Lafayette, upgrading the campus becomes an immediate priority. It's in the midst of a master planning process, which includes drafting a to-do list of improvements. Whether or not Lafayette landed the debate, it already needed to enhance its security, build up its IT infrastructure, and improve its HVAC systems, Hurd said.

The debate's application process merely sharpened their review of the college's needs, Hurd said. It didn't hurt that it also provided some motivation to potential donors.

"Things like deferred maintenance don't sound pretty exciting until you realize, 'But if you handle this, we're going to have a better debate,'" Hurd said.

The college is also looking for ways the debate can strengthen its connection with the community beyond campus. The flood of journalists and campaign staffers heading to the Lehigh Valley will generate an estimated $10 million in the local economy, Hurd said. Lafayette is also starting to plan watch parties for alumni across the world.

Hurd said the school has already started receiving inquiries, including one from three recent student government vice presidents who emailed Hurd. The trio volunteered their services, saying that their past student government office made them natural choices to assist with — and presumably attend — the exclusive debate.

"This is why I love our students. They are smart and they are clever and they know how to advocate," Hurd laughed.

At the same time, Hurd's administration has asked the faculty to brainstorm ways to tie the debate in with their instruction. While the government and law department may have the most obvious interest, she said, other disciplines will have much to gain. The debate will likely feature Vice President Kamala Harris, which can spark discussion in Women's and Gender Studies, and even the set-up of the stage and broadcast will be relevant to performing arts students, she said.

"Look, this is going to be a heavy lift, but it's also going to be a lift that is going to make us stronger and is going to allow the college to shine even brighter," Hurd said.