Mark Damon / Las Vegas News Bureau
Friday, Oct. 14, 2016 | 2 a.m.
When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage at Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, more than a few college administrators will be breathing a sigh of relief.
Since the university was announced as the location for the final presidential debate last September, campus officials have been in almost a perpetual state of planning and organization.
It comes with the territory: UNLV will be the largest public university to host a presidential debate since Arizona State University hosted the final debate of the 2004 election between John Kerry and George W. Bush. It also will be the first venue to host a presidential debate anywhere in Nevada, a key swing state.
Above the entrance to the hotel college, near where major network news channels will be broadcasting live, the university’s new slogan is emblazoned on a big red banner. “UNLV: Different. Daring. Diverse.”
“This is a different kind of city and a different kind of university,” said Carl Reiber, UNLV’s senior vice provost. “We bring a whole new dimension [to the debates].”
Indeed, presidential debates tend to be held east of the Mississippi River, often in the privileged halls of private East Coast colleges. Yet for 90 minutes next week, the attention will be squarely on UNLV and Las Vegas, microcosms of the growth and racial diversity that have helped vault the American West to prominence in national politics as of late.
And even though UNLV’s endowment is half that of Hofstra — the small Long Island private college that has hosted a presidential debate in each of the last three election cycles — the college has relevance.
At the start of his campaign, Republican nominee Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and declared unwavering support for building a border wall. In a city where half of public school students are Hispanic or Latino, UNLV is similarly situated, with white students accounting for just 35 percent of the school’s enrollment (white students at Hofstra represent nearly 60 percent).
With a large number of first-generation and nontraditional students who often hold jobs while going to school, UNLV is also more economically diverse, reflecting the widening income inequality that has become its own topic on the campaign trail.
These demographic realities are reflected in the topics for Wednesday’s debate, which were announced earlier this week. Chief among them: entitlements, the economy and immigration. That last one is particularly important at UNLV, where 5 percent of students are nonresident aliens and a large number are undocumented.
“I think it’s quite fitting to have the final debate here,” said Reiber. “Our region is highly influential.”
The preparation for the debate tells its own story. Red, white and blue banners draped over balconies and debate posters pasted on every available surface underline the fact that UNLV stands to gain more than just bragging rights over its northern rival in Reno.
For an estimated $8 million in setup costs, it stands to receive more than $50 million in free marketing, according to the university and its partner, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
The last time a media spotlight of this magnitude shone on the university could very well be the school’s renowned NCAA Tournament run, when the Runnin’ Rebels basketball team won the national championship in 1990.
As such, campus officials have pulled out all the stops, wrangling professors to field calls from reporters, raising an army of student volunteers to run the headache-inducing logistics and setting aside pockets of campus for the inevitable media swarm. CNN will broadcast live from a lawn near the engineering college, while Bloomberg will set up shop on the second floor of the Student Union. MSNBC got arguably the best real estate: An amphitheater on the busiest stretch of campus.
Students themselves have become an integral theme of the event. UNLV is offering a handful of debate-themed classes this semester as well as an essay contest for middle and high schoolers. The prize: a UNLV scholarship.
For those UNLV students who don't win a ticket to the debate in a university-run lottery, a number of watch parties are set to take place all over campus.
“Our focus is on students and making this a student-centered event,” said Juanita Fain, vice president of student affairs.
But just like the outcome of the debate itself, the full impact of UNLV’s hosting will be better appreciated in retrospect.
The university has for years been on a self-propelled trajectory toward what it calls the “Top Tier” of higher-education institutions throughout the country — that is, research-focused and internationally recognized; a first choice rather than a fallback. Ultimately, a successful debate could translate to more than just publicity; it has the potential to put students in seats.
Asked what he hopes an international audience of 80 million people will learn about UNLV from the debate, Reiber jerks his thumb toward the banner with UNLV’s slogan, “Different. Daring. Diverse.”
“That’s the take-home message right there,” he said.