When Wright State University President David Hopkins found out Monday that a $1 million contribution wasn’t coming through it was the final straw after months of lackluster fund-raising for the Sept. 26 presidential debate at the Nutter Center.
Hopkins on Tuesday announced that he had asked the Commission on Presidential Debates to release WSU from its obligation. He cited concerns over rising costs related to security and said the financially strapped university couldn’t afford to fund the debate out of its reserves.
“It would be different if we had people stepping up and covering the costs,” Hopkins said.
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With just 10 weeks to go before the debate, he said WSU had raised about $3 million to $3.5 million in contributions and pledges, state funding, anticipated charge-backs and in-kind contributions.
Hopkins had estimated the cost to host the debate to be $5 million to $8 million, but said Tuesday the cost was projected to go up by a “couple million” because of security concerns. Bowing his head at a news conference, he said WSU simply could not afford to go forward with the debate.
“We all take this responsibility very seriously, and over the last few weeks we’ve had a growing concern about what it would take to guarantee the safety and security of campus,” Hopkins said. “Having a large, open campus accessible to the public led to concerns about whether we can assure the safety and security of those on and around the campus during the debate.”
Hofstra up next
The hotly anticipated debate was the first of three presidential and one vice presidential faceoffs announced last September by the debate commission, the nonprofit that produces the debates.
The commission announced Tuesday that the WSU debate would move to Hofstra University, the previously chosen alternate that hosted debates in 2008 and 2012 on its campus in Hempstead, N.Y.
“The commission very much appreciates Wright State’s efforts,” it said in a statement. “The commission looks forward to working with Hofstra once again.”
Hoftstra officials could not be reached for comment.
“It doesn’t affect us greatly. We always have a standby school,” said Bob Roy, media director for the commission.
He was unaware of how many times a debate host has withdrawn.
“I know the president made a very, very difficult decision,” said Michael Bridges, chairman of the WSU Board of Trustees. “Unfortunately, what he had to weigh was having what would have been a wonderful event for the community and for Dayton and for Wright State students, versus the financial consequences that the university would have to bear.”
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Hopkins said he made the decision to withdraw Tuesday morning after learning Monday that a contributor who he would not name decided against giving WSU $1 million and loaning it a Wright Flyer replica to display at the debate.
Hopkins said there is no federal funding available for the debate and the state had contributed $220,000, far less than the nearly $1.9 million the university requested.
“Our fundraising efforts haven’t gotten to where I needed to be,” Hopkins said. “And the cost continued to escalate.”
He said security issues have weighed heavily on him, particularly in the wake of mass killings such as the July 14 attack in Nice, France, where a man driving a semi-truck drove it along a crowded street, killing 84 and injuring hundreds.
He said shootings at protests also impacted his thinking because the university is public and wouldn’t be able to limit who came on campus. Parents visiting campus with student recruits also were questioning how they would be kept safe during the debate, he said.
“I can’t assure the safety of our students and the community,” he said.
Hopkins said he wanted WSU to host the debate because of the experience it would offer students who could volunteer during the event and participate in watch parties, mock debates, discussions and an array of classes tied to the debate. He’s hoping to keep those elements and said that donors who have contributed or pledged will let Wright State keep the money to help pay for those events.
Hopkins said he doesn’t know why the community wasn’t more financially supportive. Bridges said that in today’s economy “there just are not enough funds to go around to support everything.”
Bridges and Hopkins both said the debate commission did not ask how Wright State was doing with fundraising or demand that the university withdraw as the money failed to arrive. Bridges also said the decision to pull out has nothing to do with a federal investigation of the university’s use of H-1B visas.
Earlier this year the university announced it was facing a budget deficit and trustees adopted a financial remediation plan that included pulling money from reserves and covering a $27.7 million deficit with a combination of cuts and increases in tuition for graduate and out-of-state students.
Wright State already paid the debate commission $2 million for production and other debate costs and spent another $500,000, mostly on improvements to Nutter Center. Hopkins said he will ask the commission to return at least some of the money, but Bridges is not optimistic that WSU will recoup any of those funds.
Hopkins said university officials also are looking at what to do about the cost of $188,000 in year-long contracts of two men hired to help with the debate, as well as a $60,000 stipend for Robert J. Sweeney, vice president of planning, to manage debate preparations.
Bridges said the decision to apply to host the debate was made in “good faith” but “that does not mean that under the current circumstances it was the right plan.”
Hopkins said he kept holding out hope that Wright State could pull it off and raise enough money.
“I wanted it so much for our students,” Hopkins said. “I hate this decision. It hurts my heart.”