Presidential debate brings small Lynn University in Boca Raton to big stage

The private liberal arts college in Palm Beach hopes the debate will bring students, notoriety

10/21/2012 5:14 PM

10/21/2012 11:37 PM

The final presidential debate will take place at a tiny, little-known university in Boca Raton described by its president as "a funky hothouse flower of American education."

Lynn University, with 2,100 students and 181 faculty members, will emerge from obscurity Monday when an estimated 60 million viewers tune in for the third debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

"Most people have never heard about the school so they think not much is going on there," says Kevin Ross, 40, who took over in 2006 from his father who ran the school for 35 years. "We are a small school, but we have big impact."

The school blends students with learning disabilities and elite musicians on full scholarships, national tennis champions and students from 87 different countries.

That international quality, Ross says, makes the school a good fit for a debate focused on foreign policy.

So how did the youngest school ever to land a presidential debate beat out nearly 40 contenders for this prize?

Sometimes it pays to be an unknown.

Lynn University celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It opened as Marymount College, a Catholic women's school, in 1962. A decade later, it became the College of Boca Raton. In 1991, the school adopted the name of Boca Raton philanthropists Eugene and Christine Lynn.

With tuition of $31,000 a year and an endowment of $21 million the school has transformed itself into a fully modern liberal arts institution on 123 acres. The capstones of this transformation were a curriculum overhaul and the construction of a world class performing arts center.

In 2008, Lynn began calling its courses "dialogues," giving them names like "self and society," "belief and reason" and "justice and civic life." Officials reasoned that students learned more by debating topics than by listening to lectures. So a business major with an interest in Asia might not only take courses in business, but learn Chinese in China, study Asian business practices, and read about Confucius.

Two years later, the school unveiled the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center, with an elegant $15-million theater that seats 752. The Wolds, who donated $9 million for the theater, meticulously attended to the details.

The cushy red seats were situated to provide a spacious 34 inches of legroom. The women's bathrooms have 27 stalls (compared with about a dozen for the men) because Ms. Wold, an heiress to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, didn't want women waiting in line. The lobby has chandeliers that are replicas from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Wavy panels of cherry wood inside the theater provide acoustics that resemble the inside of a violin.

The new performing arts center offered a suitable venue for a debate in the District 22 Congressional race in the fall of 2010 between Allen West and Ron Klein.

"That debate was pretty lively," Ross said. "There were protesters and car accidents. One student on the panel was asking questions of the candidates. The campus got a taste of what it was like."

That success encouraged administrators to apply for a presidential debate in March 2011. Within a month the university learned that it was among 12 finalists, including Indiana University and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Staff members from the Commission on President Debates visited the campus in May 2011. But Ross worried that his school's low profile would handicap it so he and his chief of staff flew to Washington D.C. several weeks later to make a special appeal to the Commission's executive director, Janet Brown.

"We were like 'We know the school is an emerging institution and not a lot of folks know who we are,' " Ross said.

He explained that 24 percent of the students came from outside the United States, that it offered 27 majors, including programs in aeronautics, business, music, education and hospitality management, that it has won 19 national championships in Division II athletics.

Five months later, a FedEx package arrived.

"We were amazed that we landed the final debate," Ross said.

Officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates said they chose Lynn for several reasons.

"Their debate hall was terrific and well-suited for this kind of event," said Peter Eyre, senior advisor for the Commission on Presidential Debates. "Also when you look at smaller schools, you look at the attitude from the people. Are they willing to roll up their sleeves and make it work? And from day one, the entire Lynn University community was committed to doing it right."

It also helped that Lynn turned the debate process into an educational opportunity for its students, adding about 80 new political courses.

So far, Lynn has spent $5 million on the debate.

They have built a 25-acre "Debate City" surrounded by 8-foot fences. They have provided each candidate's entourage with at least 4,000 square feet of space and work areas, complete with wireless network, for 3,000 journalists. They had to install air conditioning vents over the stage trained directly on Obama, Romney and moderator Bob Schieffer so that none would sweat the way Richard Nixon did in his 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy.

They even had to net carp and catfish from one of their small lakes and fill it in to make a parking lot for media's satellite trucks.

But it's all worth it to get the word out about Lynn University, Ross said. Recently he's been handing out T-shirts that say: "Lynn University, we've never heard of you either!"

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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