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When the announcement came that the University of Colorado would be hosting a Republican presidential debate, the biggest question on students’ minds was: Why?
Bringing the GOP to a city cheekily referred to as the “People’s Republic of Boulder” seemed like a political calculation that was far from obvious. Comments by Chancellor Phillip DiStefano framed the debate as an opportunity for student and community engagement, and Regent Sue Sharkey viewed it as an opportunity to bring ideological diversity to a largely one-sided campus.
Now, post-debate, the question is: Were the administration’s goals met? And was having the debate on campus a positive move for students — and for the GOP? CU faculty and students weighed in.
“I think it’s really hard when you sequester the event from the students and community at large to have community engagement,” said Michael Kodas, associate director of CU’s Center for Environmental Journalism and a journalism instructor here. Televised debates typically have small audiences, but it is unclear whether the RNC could have issued more tickets or invited more students.
“I can’t see it as being that effective in promoting diversity of opinion when the people whose opinions are the most diverse are saying them to a [television audience],” Kodas said. “I’m less than half a mile away [from the debate], but I was getting my updates from the national media.”
“I think it accomplishes goals of ideology as understood by the partisan regents,” said Mike McDevitt, professor of journalism and media studies. Five of the nine CU regents are Republicans, as is CU President Bruce Benson.
“In mainstream journalism and politics, there’s this idea of fairness as operationalized as balance [between liberal and conservative views], sometimes called ‘false balance,’” McDevitt said. “That type of balance is not appropriate in a media studies, political science, or social studies or history course.”
McDevitt sees the idea of arbitrarily balancing liberal and conservative ideas as counterproductive to reaching relevant conclusions in politics or journalism. He argues that ideological perspective in higher education is greater than it is in mainstream politics, and that debates could be better at promoting ideological diversity if faculty were involved in selecting questions for the candidates.
Despite criticizing the idea of giving political ideas equal weight based on such balancing, McDevitt saw the event as possibly beneficial for conservative students at CU.
“I would hope that students here who identify as Republicans…feel more comfortable about expressing their views among peers in classroom settings,” he said. “Faculty welcome both liberal and conservative discussions.
“I don’t know whether having the debate here on campus is gonna translate into [students] having more [comfort] in expressing views,” McDevitt said. “We want that.”
Kodas saw a silver lining in hosting the debate even with the conflict over the amount of student tickets.
“I think that it definitely got students a little more engaged in the election,” Kodas said. “It fired up a number of students that I’ve spoken with to feel they needed to be more assertive in being part of the political process.”
Students were involved in a pro-immigration rally on Farrand Field, a pre-debate panel led by Student Voices Count and various protest-related activities at the designated free speech area on the Koelbel business field.
“Will [students] do a watch party for future debates? That’ll be the real litmus test here, as for whether they’ll have a lasting interest in the process,” Kodas said, referring to the CU Student Government-hosted watch party that saw around 1,000 attendees.
“I think there are some good benefits, it’ll raise awareness for the nation of our university,” said Vanessa Baird, associate professor of political science. “The downside is, the way we did this, we’re communicating to students that we don’t care about their opinions.”
“I can imagine on a national scale among conservative voters that…it might change the image of CU,” Kodas said. “As to whether that will outweigh the [coverage of student dissatisfaction]…that could end up being more memorable than having the debate at a liberal campus.”
The Daily Camera reported last week that debates like this can garner millions of dollars in publicity value for universities, but that the concrete benefits are hard to quantify.
“All in all, it will be worth it to the university. It’ll be hard to track what the benefits will be,” McDevitt said. “Common sense would suggest it’s beneficial.”
McDevitt echoed Kodas’ concerns that the media coverage of student discontent could outweigh the positive effects. To better engage students and faculty in these situations, McDevitt suggested that faculty and students should be able to submit, or influence, the questions asked of candidates.
“University administration and faculty should have pushed for more input on the types of questions put to candidates,” McDevitt said.
A different question is whether the GOP made a good move in bringing the debate to CU. Despite the liberal majority in Boulder, Colorado’s status as a swing state or “purple” state due to its near-equal percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans makes it a critical target for both parties.
“I think having the debate here in a swing state makes sense as a strategy for the GOP,” McDevitt said. Kodas agreed, saying it shows the party is “not afraid to go to a very liberal university where they’d disagree with the ideas of the population on campus.”
With the heavy focus in the media of the moderator-candidate conflict in the debate, it is more unclear whether the debate will benefit the party.
“I don’t know if it’s good for the GOP; I think it’s good for the individual candidates,” Kodas said of the conflict. “Pushing back against the ‘liberal media,’ these guys get some points.
“On one hand, I can see that [candidate Ted Cruz] is correct in saying [the moderators’ tone] shows media bias, but not the kind of bias he thinks it is. It’s not a liberal bias, it’s a media bias toward getting dramatic reactions or angry answers,” Kodas said.
Elizabeth Skewes, associate professor of journalism and media studies, said, “I think it serves as a distraction — the [back and forth] moments were more heated so it’s easier to remember them. I mean, sadly, it makes it hard to remember the substantive part of [the debate].”
“I went in expecting to see a lot of theatrics, and I think that’s what we ended up seeing,” said Joseph Soto, president of external affairs for CU Student Government. “I think substantive policy discussions are an important thing for debates, and I think we saw an inkling of that, but not as much as students deserved, especially with it being held on our campus.”
“I think the biggest tie-in to the goals the administration had was in the watch party and students expressing their opinions on social media,” said Boneth Ahaneku, president of internal affairs for CUSG and a debate attendee. “Out of all the goals the chancellor expressed, this is the one that showed to be true — it got the students talking.
“The most important thing was free speech was still able to happen,” Ahaneku said. “And students were able to express their opinions in some fashion.”