Virginia State University left out in the cold after candidates determine debate schedule

Virginia State University said Wednesday it was "disappointed" over reports that VSU appears to have been dropped from the upcoming presidential debate schedule, yet hopeful that an arrangement can be worked out.

"A presidential debate at VSU is a huge win, not only for our students and campus community but for the greater community in general," university spokesperson Gwen Williams Dandridge said in a statement. "As the first Historically Black College or University ever selected to host a General Election U.S. Presidential Debate, VSU recognizes the event's significance and welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the democratic process."

Wednesday, the campaigns of presumptive nominees President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump announced a new debate schedule that appears to freeze out not just VSU but the forums at the other two chosen universities in Texas and Utah. In doing so, the campaigns seemingly have shrugged off years of precedent by forging their own path in scheduling their debates.

After a quick back-and-forth on social media, Biden and Trump ironed out the dates for two debates, outside of the three forums previously scheduled by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Instead of on college campuses, they now say they will debate June 27 at CNN studios in Atlanta and Sept. 10 at a to-be-determined location that will be broadcast on ABC.

Biden has put a lid of two on the debates. Trump says he wants more.

"We will continue to work closely with the Commission on Presidential Debates and other stakeholders as we assess this situation," Dandridge said. "VSU will continue to provide updates and further details as they become available."

VSU has not removed a link to the Oct. 1 debate from its website.

The other colleges on the debate commission's schedule are Sept. 16 at Texas State University in San Marcos, and Oct. 9 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Biden camp: Commission 'out of step'

Jen O’Malley Dillion, campaign chair for the Biden-Harris Campaign sent a letter to the commission on Wednesday to “provide notice that the President will not be participating in the Commission on Presidential Debates’ announced debates in 2024." Instead, Biden would take part in debates hosted by the news organizations.

The letter argued that the commission’s debate schedule was “out of step with changes in the structure of our elections and the interest of voters.” The campaign noted that:

  • The commission’s schedule includes debates that would have taken place after early voting had begun,

  • The commission’s model of building huge spectacles with large audiences isn’t conducive to good debates and,

  • The commission didn’t enforce the rules that candidates were meant to follow during the 2020 debates.

The Republican National Committee had voted to withdraw its participation from the Commission on Presidential Debates in 2022, after Trump railed against the commission for its selection of moderators for the 2020 presidential debates and for muting each candidate’s microphone during the final 2020 debate.

Swift reaction to the news

As expected, Wednesday's news was met with less-than-enthusiastic responses from leaders across local, state and federal government levels. The reactions were not partisan toward either Biden or Trump.

“Virginia State made history as the first HBCU to ever be selected to hold a presidential debate. Biden and Trump should stick to the plan and head to Virginia for a debate,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said in a post on the social-platform X, formerly known as Twitter. His fellow Virginia senator, also a Democrat, made a similar post.

“Now that Biden and Trump are discussing debates, one thing is clear. The first ever Presidential debate at an HBCU, Virginia State University, should go forward as planned,” Tim Kaine wrote on X.

Kaine is no stranger to these types of debates. In 2016 as Democrat Hillary Clinton's running mate, he debated Republican Mike Pence in a vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville.

Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Virginia, said she has "requested that the Biden-Harris Campaign engage with Virginia State University students and the Tri-Cities community with an event before the election."

"I hope the ongoing negotiations between the campaigns result in a Presidential debate at VSU," she said in a statement. McClellan represents Virginia's 4th Congressional District, which includes VSU's campus.

Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said the idea of cancelling a debate at VSU was "extremely disappointing."

"It is unimaginable at a time when the constituency of an HBCU like Virginia State University needs to hear from President Biden the most, participation in their fall debate has been cancelled," Aird, a VSU alumnus, said in a statement. "This is extremely disappointing, and an alternate engagement should be arranged."

The mayor of Petersburg also weighed in on the decision. Petersburg is across the Appomattox River from the VSU campus, but the city and university are closely aligned. A presidential debate at VSU would have been a major coup for the entire Tri-City area.

"The debate news is disappointing but not surprising," Parham said, "considering what's going on in politics on the national level."

Petersburg spokesperson Joanne Williams added about the decision: "This would have been a historical event for the university and the Petersburg region. Additionally, it would have given Petersburg national exposure and provided an economic boost for small businesses within the city."

Two state legislators who claim VSU within their districts jointly penned a letter to Biden asking for him to reconsider.

The letter from Colonial Heights Republicans Del. Mike Cherry and Sen. Glen Sturtevant said Virginia "values her HBCUs, and the debate was a chance to put "a critical spotlight on an institution that embodies the resilience and excellence of the Black community in our education system.

"This event was seen not just as a debate, but as a celebration and recognition of the critical role that institutions like VSU play in higher education," the legislators letter read. "While we understand that such decisions are complex, we respectfully urge you to reconsider your decision. We believe reinstating this debate would offer a tremendous opportunity to reinforce the importance of HBCUs in our nation's educational landscape and beyond."

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Biden-Trump debate shakeup leaves first HBCU to hold forum out