Column: U. Miss. Will Play Minor Role In Overhyped Presidential Debate

This story was written by Willow Nero, Daily Mississippian

In every presidential election there is a Chosen One. It alone will represent the nation, a bastion of good against the demons and the forces of darkness. This is the university chosen to host the presidential debate.

Like the hype? You might recognize it from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." If my calculations are correct, you'll be reading that statement in the Ole Miss press releases come September.

It's really cool that Ole Miss was chosen to host one of the presidential debates this year, but I'd like to know why everyone thinks this is such a momentous occasion for us. Sure, this is the nation acknowledging that we're "a great American public university," one good enough to be honored with this event. That's almost exactly what Arizona State University President Michael Crow said four years ago when his school was chosen.

But I don't buy into this idea that the debate will increase our enrollment or our national prestige. In the 2004 debates, the debate hosts were mentioned briefly in almost the manner that "Wheel of Fortune" shows off its current locale.

Looking at enrollment from 2002 to 2006, Ole Miss has grown at nearly the same rate as ASU. I don't remember hearing anything wonderful about ASU or the University of Miami with debate in the same sentence. Similarly, Washington University has held more than one debate, and they're still well known for academics, not their proximity to future presidents.

So why is our university preparing so aggressively for this debate? I understand that we should get ready for out out-of-town guests, but it seems backwards that we only appoint a Presidential Debate Student Steering Committee in the year we actually host the debate. I'm baffled by why the debate coordinators want me to show up and watch during our debate but why it couldn't matter less during actual election time. Can't we rock for Obama just because - not because he's in town?

The debate is a much less important local event in comparison to having Salman Rushdie or King Abdullah address our students. On those occasions, students were genuinely involved in the action. With the debate, only a handful of students can attend and they probably can't ask questions or even mingle with the untouchables. All we get out of this is a day off and a chance to see some Special Service agents.

Last summer I worked for the major Charleston, S.C., newspaper during the YouTube Democratic debate in Charleston. The day came and passed with some excitement but no mass preparation. We didn't feature the debates on our front page for a month before the big day.

Even if race figures into one of the big questions, I doubt the candidates would choose to mention Ole Miss (in effect focusing his attention to a small number of Mississippi democrats) when they could broadly address the entire country.

During the Arizona debate, ASU was definitely not the focus of the excitement. Once, Sen. John Kerry mentioned being greeted by Native Americans, but the debate did not take off in that direction. The world was much more concerned about Kerry forgetting Poland.

The same was true at the University of Miami. In a city where illegal immigration is a big concern, the candidates spoke on immigration in a broad sense.

So the media may do one little story about Ole Miss and its racist past, but Sept. 26 is all about the debate. In an interview with The Daily Mississippian concerning whether racial tension would ensnare the debate focus, Chancellor Robert Khayat had some sage advice: "The discussion is going to have to move to the issues that will be on the debate agenda. They are going to have to be domestic issues, and race may be a domestic issue but it doesn't rank ith the economy, health or immigration. The racial discussion goes on, and it is important, but I cannot see that issue taking over this debate."

I just wonder why there's so much hype over an event in which we barely get to participate, in which our school plays a supporting role and to which we've never paid much attention. I don't want to hear any more about debate preparation unless it addresses how we're going to keep Ole Miss students engaged in politics in the long run.