October 16th, 2012

First day of school

Hofstra Pride!

David Zuniga, 21, is just the kind of student Hofstra University is looking for. A senior from West Palm Beach, Fla., with a mania for politics, Mr. Zuniga was deciding where to apply to college when he watched the presidential debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama at Hofstra in 2008.

David Zuniga, in glasses, worked at a bake sale for a Hofstra pre-law student group. Many other events surround the debate.

Two years later, he was elected the chairman of Hofstra’s College Republicans. The year after, he became president of the student body. And this year, with Hofstra hosting another presidential debate on Tuesday, Mr. Zuniga is organizing viewing parties and debating Young Democrats as a member of the university’s Debate 2012 committee.

“Four years later — so far, it’s been worth it,” Mr. Zuniga said, grinning, in the student center last week. Nearby, Hofstra’s Young Democrats were handing out voter registration forms, a cardboard cutout of President Obama standing guard. Near the doors, a group of students and staff members from Hofstra’s Hillel center broke out into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Debate fever has come to Hofstra once again, this time sweeping up many students who first heard of the university when it played host to the 2008 debate. For university leaders, that is the point: hoping to elevate Hofstra’s reputation from a Long Island commuter school to a nationally recognized institution, they have invested millions in the two presidential debates and a 2010 debate in the governor’s race to gain exposure, attract applicants from outside New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and energize donors and students.

“It’s history, ’cause it’s the second time in a row,” said Mishaina Joseph, a sophomore from nearby Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y., who was staffing the Young Democrats table. She decided to apply to Hofstra after watching the 2008 debate and researching its political science program. “It’s like: ‘Hey, we’re awesome. They gave it to us again.’ ”

Stuart Rabinowitz, Hofstra’s president, is betting on that sentiment. Since 1982, Hofstra has held a series of conferences examining the legacies of former presidents, and in 2006 the university attracted a $3.5 million gift to found a presidential studies center. Soon after, Mr. Rabinowitz decided to apply to host the 2008 debate. Before each debate, figures including Cornel West, Robert Gibbs, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush have come to campus, packing auditoriums.

A similar strategy has helped Washington University in St. Louis, which has hosted a debate or served as a backup site in all but one election year since 1992 and which has become one of the country’s most desirable schools over the past few decades, and Centre College in Danville, Ky., a small liberal arts college that has hosted two vice-presidential debates. With Hofstra, they make up a small, select club of campuses to host multiple times.

“We consistently punch above our weight,” said Michael Strysick, a Centre College spokesman. “It really says that small places can do big things.”

Hofstra was chosen both times in large part because of its facilities: the debate hall is big enough to accommodate several different debate formats, it has room for large production trucks and media filing equipment, and there is enough parking for thousands of journalists, debate personnel and attendees, said Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Hofstra’s plans for speakers and events surrounding the debate also played a role, she said.

Many colleges look to football or basketball to raise their profile. Hofstra eliminated its football team in 2009. Each presidential debate has cost Hofstra about $4.5 million, the same amount the university was spending on its football team annually. And while the team turned in lackluster seasons, drew few fans and delivered no revenue, the university calculated that the exposure from the 2008 debate was worth $30 million in advertising. Like Centre College, where applications spiked 20 percent the year after its 2008 debate, Hofstra also saw a rise in applications, to 20,829 in 2009 from 18,741 in 2007. Average SAT scores of freshmen applicants have risen since 2008, Hofstra says.

“That’s a good return on investment,” said Mr. Rabinowitz, who proudly displays photos of himself with Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain outside his office.

This time around, David S. Mack, a trustee, has donated most of the cost. The debate has helped attract donations in other areas, too: the university completed a $100 million fund-raising campaign after the 2008 debate and will soon begin a $250 million campaign, part of its plan to create an endowment big enough to compete with “the behemoths,” as Mr. Rabinowitz put it.

Mr. Rabinowitz has also stepped up financing for science departments and opened a medical school, hoping to establish a research presence. He said he was modeling Hofstra’s growth on that of George Washington University and Boston University, both private schools that have transformed their regional reputations into international ones.

But he has something neither school has: two events that have attracted the attention of millions.

“If you’re a good high school student who happens to be watching the debate, it could cross your mind — could I apply to this school?” said Michael Bastedo, the director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. Such recognition is important when applicants have so many institutions to choose from, he added.

Even for students who are not involved in a political group or the committee, the debate has lent an extra sparkle to the Hofstra experience, allowing students bragging rights and recognition at home.

Classes are canceled on debate day so students can come to “Issue Alley,” a festival held in and around the student center that will feature student groups pushing campaign issues, cable-TV broadcasts and Sirius Radio holding debates between student Republicans and Democrats. The student debate committee is hosting four themed simulcasts for those who do not win seats at the debate in the lottery, which 6,576 students — more than half the student population — have entered.

“It was a big deal when they hosted in 2008, and I had an inkling we’d get it again,” said Rachel Lutz, a senior from New Jersey who is volunteering for NBC on debate day. “I knew I came here for the right reason.”