University of Michigan confirms it won’t host presidential debate. Here’s why

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DETROIT — The uncertainty surrounding the fall semester, including ongoing COVID-19 concerns, led the University of Michigan to withdraw from hosting a presidential debate in October.

The school made the official announcement Tuesday morning. The Free Press was the first to report the move Monday evening.

“Given the scale and complexity of the work we are undertaking to help assure a safe and healthy fall for our students, faculty and staff and limited visitors — and in consideration of the public health guidelines in our state as well as advice from our own experts — we feel it is not feasible for us to safely host the presidential debate as planned,” U-M President Mark Schlissel said in a letter sent to the commission that runs the debates.

U-M had been set to host the second presidential debate between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden Oct. 15.

On Monday, the university announced it would resume face-to-face instruction in the fall, but said many classes would remain online or be some sort of hybrid. Schlissel said the university was planning a “public health informed” semester.

“We will protect our students, faculty and staff with a broad array of research-based public health measures and tools,” Schlissel said in making the announcement of U-M’s plans for fall.

That debate will now be held at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.

Schlissel told the commission in his letter that hosting the debate would have been a “tremendous opportunity for our university community to contribute to one of the most important features of our democracy — the open exchange of ideas — while setting an example of civic engagement and shining a light on the outstanding academic strengths of our institution.”

The university had been planning a semester-long program of events around the debate. It will continue special programming, the university said Tuesday morning.

The debate had been scheduled to take place largely on the university’s athletics campus. Crisler Center is home to the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the women’s gymnastics team. Educational and outreach activities were scheduled to take place in facilities near Crisler Center and in other parts of the Ann Arbor campus.

This would have been the first presidential debate in Michigan since 1992. That one took place at Michigan State University. Both parties have had debates among presidential candidates for their nominations in Michigan, including the Democrats meeting in Detroit in July.

Debates in Michigan have been the setting for some historic moments, including some candidates would like to forget.

The top one has to be former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, during a 2011 presidential debate at Oakland University in Rochester was flummoxed by a question on which federal departments he would eliminate. “Commerce, Education,” he said pausing, while counting on his fingers and listening while his rivals suggested other potential candidates for shutdowns. “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” He never recovered and suspended his campaign two months later.

In 2000, it was Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s turn in the hot seat during a debate at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, with most of the other GOP candidates ganging up on him. But he had a moment of levity with U.S. Sen. John McCain, when the two shook hands on stage and promised not to run negative ads against one another, while businessman Steve Forbes, who had been running attack ads against Bush, said “I will continue to tell the truth.”

Ten days after the debate, Bush and McCain started airing negative ads against one another in the days leading up to the Michigan presidential primary. By the time Michigan’s primary election rolled around, Forbes had dropped out of the race and McCain won the battle, winning Michigan. But Bush won the election war and then narrowly won the Electoral College in the general election over Democrat Al Gore.

U-M has been the host to a variety of other key moments in history, including President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” speech and the clinical trials of the Salk polio vaccine. It was on the steps of the Michigan Union that presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy delivered his speech in 1960 announcing his vision of what would become the Peace Corps.


(Free Press reporters Kathleen Gray and Todd Spangler contributed to this report.)


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