This article originally appeared in The New York Times as part of the “Room for Debate” series.
Hosting presidential campaign debates on college campuses provides a unique opportunity for the youngest voters to see democracy up close. At a time when youth voter turnout is at an all-time low, candidates should be spending more time on college campuses, to bring both civic excitement as well as a modest economic boost to areas of America outside of the capital.
Having been closely involved with three such debates — a 1992 presidential debate at the University of Richmond, where I served as a vice president, and vice presidential debates in 2000 and 2012 at Centre College, where I am president — I can tell you first-hand how exciting it is for students to be so involved in the election.
In 2012, hundreds of our students at Centre watched Joe Biden and Paul Ryan face off, but an equal number volunteered with some of the 3,200 media personnel from 40 different countries and 1,500 media organizations we hosted.
Not everyone got to work directly with Chuck Todd, Megyn Kelly, Chris Matthews or Soledad O’Brien, but experiencing the magic of “spin alley” or acting as a runner for CNN while their college was at the center of the political universe was transformative. Imagine the thrill of the students who were rehearsal stand-ins for Vice President Joe Biden, Representative Paul Ryan and the moderator, Martha Raddatz: They got to meet these immensely important individuals, and talk with them about the future of the country.
There are many theories about why millennials, supposedly a civic-minded bunch, aren’t voting. But the most compelling is that they don’t feel they have the ability to effect change in politics. One third of young people said their votes won’t “make a difference,” according to a Harvard Institute of Politics youth poll, and that mindset is a challenge the older generation must take on.
Giving students a front-row seat and participatory role in the American political process not only provides this agency, but it’s an educational experience. Some have criticized this practice, including the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform, which suggested that debates be held in television studios in metropolitan areas without on-site audiences, except for town-hall debates. But I say: Hold even more debates at colleges, and wake up the students who will be the future of our electorate.
This is an ongoing opportunity to teach civic participation in a hands-on way. The students might just feel empowered enough to join in.
by President John A. Roush
October 13, 2015