Hopkins: Debate price tag rose to $11 million

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Produced by Lynn Hulsey

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Wright State president said university would have had to build a ‘fortress’ to ensure security during debate

This newspaper first reported on Tuesday Wright State University's decision to withdraw as the host for the first of this fall's presidential debates. Follow our team at @Ohio_Politics on Twitter to get political news from Ohio and beyond.

Protecting Wright State University’s campus during the planned presidential debate in September would have driven projected costs to $11 million as concerns over terrorist attacks grew in recent weeks, WSU President David Hopkins said on Wednesday.

“These were the estimates to almost build a fortress,” said Hopkins. “We are a public university; we can’t do that. I am not going to build a fortress around the campus for this educational experience. It just didn’t make sense.”

With costs escalating and fundraising falling far short of what was needed, Hopkins on Tuesday announced that WSU had withdrawn from hosting the Sept. 26 debate.

“It’s not like I have lost a loved one, but we have lost something that everyone worked so hard on, so there is a process of grieving I’m feeling, especially with my students as I talk to them,” Hopkins said.

He said he was sad, but not embarrassed, by the decision to withdraw 10 weeks before the debate, which was to be held at the Nutter Center.

“I don’t feel embarrassed because I think we’ve done the right thing,” Hopkins said.

The September debate is the first of four General Election debates that will be produced by the Commission on Presidential Debates. With Wright State out, the commission shifted the first presidential matchup to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The private university hosted 2008 and 2012 debates and was designated as the alternate.

“Hofstra University is honored to be called on to host the first presidential debate. This is an extraordinary privilege and responsibility,” said Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz. “We greatly appreciate the faith shown in us by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and we have begun preparations for a very successful debate.”

Debate invite

Rabinowitz emailed Hopkins on Wednesday, offering to allow 15 Wright State students to attend the debate alongside Hofstra students, Hopkins said.

“What a very generous offer. I really, really appreciate that,” Hopkins said, adding that he will ask university donors to cover the costs for the students, who will be chosen by lottery.

Hopkins said Wright State had raised $3 million to $3.5 million in cash, pledges of cash, state funding, in-kind contributions and anticipated revenue from charge-backs for services.

Of that, about $2 million was cash or pledges of cash. Hopkins is hoping donors will let the university keep the money to produce a variety of educational events on campus associated with the debate, even though the debate won’t be there.

He said donors have been contacting university fundraisers and he plans to talk to donors who want their money back.

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For Hopkins the final straw was news on Monday that the university would not get a potential contribution of $1 million — a gift that came with a loaned Wright Flyer replica to display at the debate.

“We’re not getting the support that we thought we would get,” said Hopkins, adding that the financially strapped university couldn’t afford to make up the difference.

Hopkins said security costs were driving estimated costs up from the $5 million he anticipated, beyond the $8 million budgeted to as much as $11 million.

The cost of protecting the campus beyond the Nutter Center’s Secret Service security perimeter is what kept rising, Hopkins said. Thousands of students and others were expected to be on campus on the day of the event for a debate party and other festivities.

$2.5M already spent

Hopkins is not optimistic that the university will be able to recoup any of the $2.5 million that has already been spent on the debate, but he said he is asking the Commission on Presidential Debates to refund what they haven’t already spent out of the $2 million fee charged to Wright State.

The debate commission did not respond Wednesday to calls seeking comment.

The other $500,000 was spent on improvements to cybersecurity, including $220,000 paid for by the state, and work on the Nutter Center — things that needed to be done anyway, Hopkins said.

He said the debate commission had been working with university officials over several months and did not pressure Wright State to withdraw.

Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will host the vice presidential debate on Oct. 4. The other presidential debates will be hosted by Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9 and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Oct. 19.