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Beyond the News

Politicians on college campuses

How higher ed prepares for a campus visit from a public figure
University Business, May 2017
THE BIG EVENT—In 2016, when President Barack Obama visited the University of Nebraska at Omaha, more than 10,000 higher ed students, faculty, staff and community members attended an event at the campus arena.
THE BIG EVENT—In 2016, when President Barack Obama visited the University of Nebraska at Omaha, more than 10,000 higher ed students, faculty, staff and community members attended an event at the campus arena.

Colleges may already prepare extensively for VIPs, but a deeper level of cross-campus coordination can ensure a smooth visit even when protests or other disruptions occur. This may require new approaches to university security and collaboration between communications, event planning and academic departments.

When the visit isn’t part of an already coordinated regular event, such as commencement, the first step in prepping for a public figure’s visit is to define its purpose: What is the guest expecting from the visit, and how can the university best utilize the person’s time on campus?

Often, this must be accomplished with little notice, says Emily Poeschl, director of marketing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

When President Barack Obama visited the university in 2016, staff had only six days notice of his arrival.

A strategic communications team should establish relationships over time with parking managers, venue workers and campus security personnel to eliminate communication silos. If the university has an event team, its staff should be involved from preliminary planning stages as well.

Campus police, of course, should be alerted about the event, and they must be flexible when coordinating with outside security teams such as the Secret Service, says Poeschl.

In a time of sharp political divisiveness—illustrated most recently by controversial author Charles Murray’s calamitous appearance at Middlebury College in Vermont—preparation for political visits should include designating an area for protesters near the event.

“You want to make sure protesters are safe, especially if counter-protesters [attend],” says Bill Mahon, senior lecturer in the college of communications at Penn State University. “A public university in particular needs to be welcoming to all.”

Helping the campus and visitor shine

Before a politician’s speech, the university’s event and communications teams should be available to assist in last-minute tasks, such as printing tickets. They should also supply the visitor’s team with informative bullet points and key facts about the institution, like the campus’ Twitter handle and the name of the school mascot, says Poeschl.

Strategically marketing the event to interested students and related departments will build the audience for the visit. Faculty may produce assignments around the visit to drive deeper engagement with the speaker.

Officials should strongly consider appointing a senior administrator to coordinate this type of visit to help ensure uniformity—rather than having different departments forge new processes for each visitor, says Mahon.

The university may also consider having the visitor tour other points of interest—such as the library, laboratories and other distinct features—so they can interact with students and researchers on a personal level, says Poeschl.

Balancing school interest with visitor intent

When higher ed institutions welcome political candidates who are currently on the campaign trail, they must ensure not to endorse them.

“Don’t have the cheerleaders, school mascot or marching band show up in uniforms to act as a university prop for a candidate’s campaign event,” says Mahon, adding that a sitting politician, on the other hand, has earned this kind of recognition from the school.

“Campaign staff have a different goal than the university,” says Mahon. “Our goal is to give students and faculty exposure to important history makers. Campaign staff want a great event to boost support for their candidate.”

Outlining all costs with campaign staffers before arrival on campus is helpful, and a bill should be provided to the visiting team before they leave. Audio-visual equipment rental and livestreams add up quickly. “In a [presidential] primary race with lots of candidates running, people drop out all the time,” says Mahon.

“You don’t want to get caught picking up the tab for a candidate who shuts down operations a week after leaving your campus.”

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