Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Debate Time at UNLV

In Spring of this year, Joe Biden came to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to discuss his campaign to prevent sexual assaults on campus.  Six months later, the university is hosting one of the world’s highest profile and most unrepentant sexual predators on campus as one of the two leading presidential candidates.  
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will have their final debate this evening on the public university campus in southern Nevada, within a few minutes of the Las Vegas Strip.  
Our campus looks nicer than ever this week, reminding me of Nairobi citizens grousing that the city only gets a makeover when a U.S. President comes to visit.  Lawns are clipped, trees are trimmed, and campus buildings are bedecked by signs bearing the new campus slogan, “Daring.  Different.  Diverse” (the cynic in me wonders how much the university paid consultants to devise that).
“Different,” is certainly one word to describe a university administration that recently expended significant effort lobbying the state to use rare public funds to subsidize a casino for a billionaire, when said university, along with schools, infrastructure, and social welfare are woefully neglected.
“Daring,” on the other hand, might describe those members of the campus community who braved the streets surrounding campus, after seven week’s worth of e-mails warning us that we faced a veritable apocalypse if we came to campus because of the intense security and media presence on campus.
UNLV is certainly a “Diverse” of the most diverse in the nation.  But the shuttering of parking lots and the closure of most classes on Tuesday and Wednesday means that visitors will see only a small slice of our student body.
But the University is hoping that it can use its hosting of this major political event to draw attention to its place in Nevada society, the research of its faculty, the diversity of its students, and its aspirations toward “Top Tier” status (never mind that top tier status probably requires a different kind of political economy than the sociopathy that seems to define Nevada for this relative newcomer to the state).
The debate will be held in the celebrated Thomas & Mack arena, which holds nearly 20,000 seats.  It’s my understanding that only around a thousand of those seats will hold attendees at the debate, and that only about 70 tickets were available to UNLV students via a lottery.  Faculty, staff, and alumni missed out altogether.
The Thomas & Mack complex is ringed by giant containers and heavy-duty fences, plus a kind of demilitarized zone, presumably to protect Las Vegans and the UNLV community from the dangerous circus animals performing there on Wednesday.  
Hosting the debate created a range of interesting opportunities for teaching this semester, and I’m proud to be a member of a department that embraced these wholeheartedly.  Colleagues are teaching classes on election issues in historical perspective: ten faculty are contributing in their respective areas of expertise, ranging from foreign policy to fashion, from immigration to climate change.  Another colleague is teaching a version of the same class focusing on issues of race, class, and gender.  Others are offering courses on the history of presidential elections, and on women in politics.  Students are fortunate to have such great offerings available.
The downsides of the security and media presence--the closure of parking lots--has greater implications for UNLV than for other campuses with more residents.  Largely a commuter campus, UNLV is basically off limits to the majority of its students for the first few days of this week.  This means that rather than being an exercise in community-building, the debate has simply seen most students get kicked off campus.
For those on campus, the debate does offer some insight into the world surrounding presidential campaigns.  Students in class Monday were discussing watching the movements of secret service across rooftops in preparation for the week.  I overheard a conversation in the library cafe today from a group of students who were tracking Anderson Cooper’s movements with military precision in the hope of getting autographs.
MSNBC and CNN have large stages on campus from which they are broadcasting.  Leaving work yesterday, I stopped off at an amphitheater near the MSNBC stage to watch Chris Matthews interview a wriggling Michael Steele and a confident Dina Titus, the congresswoman who represents our part of the valley.  Garry Trudeau took his turn in the hot-seat in front of Matthews, who answers his own questions and interrupts his guests mid-sentence.
Matthews reeled away from the stage, followed by a small group of students.  He obligingly signed t-shirts and posed for photos, looking a bit bemused by it all.  
Today is the big day, and it remains to be seen whether the debate will surpass the low bar set by the first two in terms of introducing actual content and policy to a race dominated by Donald Trump’s racism and sexism, and Hillary Clinton’s evasiveness.  UNLV students and the Las Vegas community would undoubtedly like to hear more about student loans, climate change, financial regulation, environmental protection, social welfare, and gun control.
For those dissatisfied by the impoverished nature of American politics, UNLV has helpfully designated a “public expression area.” Free speech, we have been told, is available just off campus, near the Double Down Saloon...provided your organization has completed the relevant registration forms.  *Late and or incomplete applications will not be considered.
Bureaucrats, as you can see, don’t do irony.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is notoriously touchy about partisanship.  This august body, which styles itself as “nonpartisan,” is of course controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties.  Some countries have independent bodies, comprised of civil servants and experts, to deal with election matters.  In the land that fancies itself the birthplace of democracy, we don’t have much time for experts.  We prefer our politics sans content and our democracy without the complications that rational, representative systems of democracy create.
UNLV has plenty of bunting out for the barbarians, and Wright Hall, home to the history department, is no exception.  I was pleased that the CPD, despite its penchant for awkward even-handedness, resisted the temptation to bedeck buildings with fascist insignia or Confederate battle flags, given Trump’s apparently consensual romance with various forms of white supremacy (we won’t mention UNLV’s own brush with Confederate-related controversy here).  
After a slow Monday, Tuesday’s arrival of the media personalities marked an uptick in the campus atmosphere.  Even some administrators were swept up in the excitement, and I spotted a group of them taking selfies next to the CNN stage.  

Hosting the debate is supposed to represent UNLV’s “arrival” as a more robust and better-known institution.  The growing crowds and media hordes on campus are a testament to the significance of the debate.  How it affects UNLV remains to be seen.  

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