Seven Questions with Otterbein's John Comerford

Chris Gaitten
John Comerford in his office at Otterbein

For one evening, a small liberal arts college in Westerville will become the center of national political discourse. The fourth Democratic presidential debate, co-hosted by CNN, The New York Times and the Democratic Party, will bring 12 candidates seeking the nomination for the 2020 presidential election to Otterbein University to face off in front of a nationwide TV audience at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 15.

The university has been planning the event with CNN since August but couldn’t announce its participation until after the mid-September debate in Houston, Otterbein president John Comerford says via email. It’s a huge undertaking—the Ohio Democratic Party received more than 25,000 requests for tickets to the debate at the Rike Center, which usually seats a maximum of 3,100—and the university has coordinated with media outlets, law enforcement agencies, neighborhood and business groups, hotels, campus constituencies and dozens of other entities to make it all come together.

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Shortly before the candidates, national media and a wide swath of special interest groups and protestors began to converge on campus, Comerford took some time to answer questions about the debate and what he hopes students get from the presence of a political gathering of such magnitude.

How did hosting the Democratic presidential debate at Otterbein come about?

CNN was scouting locations for a “major political event” and called us. We showed a large team our facilities, we confirmed calendars would work, and I believe our staff and our ability to meet their needs impressed CNN. I think it also has a lot to do with Westerville having the necessary infrastructure, including hotels, proximity to the airport, restaurants and more. Otterbein’s location in Central Ohio, a bipartisan swing area, also helped.

Given the political climate, were there any reservations about hosting this sort of event?

Frankly, given the toxic political environment, we thought hosting this was more important than ever. College campuses may be one of the few places left where people who disagree with one another can coexist and actually learn from one another. We are eager to model this to the rest of the country. What is especially exciting about this opportunity is that, while we have been honored to host campaign rallies before, a debate is a discussion of ideas and issues between people with different, sometimes opposing, viewpoints. Otterbein embraces that kind of exchange of ideas every day.

In a place like Westerville, which generally leans conservative, was it a difficult sell to get a Democratic debate to come?

I have been very proud of our Otterbein and Westerville communities for the general sense of enthusiasm hosting the debate has drawn. There are always a few naysayers, but the overwhelming majority of people understand this is a positive for the university, city and region. I’ve had many people say things like, “I may not vote for any of them, but I’m really glad this is happening here.”

Have you received any negative reactions from the city of Westerville or the Otterbein community about the debate?

Feedback has been 99 percent positive. I’m thankful most people are willing to put up with the inconveniences necessary to make something of this scale happen. Rather than negative reactions, we’ve been focused on how to accentuate the positive. We’re especially interested to let all our guests know about the innovative things Otterbein is doing around access, affordability, diversity, student success, workforce development and countless other areas. The candidates may talk about the problems in American higher education, and we hope we’re seen as part of the solution.

About how many people in attendance will be Otterbein students and faculty?

We have 400 tickets: 300 for students and 100 for faculty and staff. We have another smaller group we used for trustees, volunteers, Westerville City Council and other local leaders.

What do you hope students gain from having an event like this on campus?

That is what I’m most excited about! On a relatively small campus, nearly every student will be close to this. Besides those with tickets, CNN has hired 120 of our students to help work the event. Plus, every student should see all the media, visitors and energy this will create. I expect students will get more engaged politically seeing this up close, some may discover new career paths, and many will have their faculty integrate this experience into their classes.

Do you think encouraging students to be politically active should be part of the mission of a university?

We certainly want graduates that will be engaged local leaders. Not everyone has a chance to attend a university like Otterbein, so it is critical that our graduates help others, not just themselves. We do not have an end in mind, so long as we are creating engaged and critically thinking citizens.


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