Although it would have required sacrifices, the University should have hosted President Obama on Grounds
President Barack Obama will speak downtown this afternoon after the University declined to host him on Grounds. A statement released University spokesperson Carol Wood Sunday outlined the rationale for this principled but misguided decision, one which rerouted financial and academic concerns facing the University directly to students and the community.
The first of the difficulties mentioned by Wood was cost. To host Obama, the price was said to be “a substantial and open-ended expenditure of staff time and money.” But in neglecting to cover these costs the University shifts them to others, including many students who will now have to transit to the event.
There was also the question of favoritism. Wood said that if the University hosted the president “[it] would also have to offer the same accommodations and bear the same costs for the Romney campaign.” According to the IRS, the University must provide an “equivalent opportunity” for both parties campaigning to maintain its tax exempt status. This does not entail the University actually hosting Republican Nominee Mitt Romney — the political and demographic realities of Charlottesville ensure he would likely never come. By citing a political concern the University presented itself as a non-partisan actor, instead of a public institution neglecting to serve as a political forum when it remained in its rights to do so.
The University offered John Paul Jones Arena to the president, but the Obama campaign denied the location because it “was not academic enough,” according to the Office of Public Affairs. Although it would have been preferable for the campaign to meet the University halfway, when confronted with the campaign’s refusal to host the event at JPJ, the University should have recognized the overwhelming benefit of hosting a president would outweigh any expenses incurred by receiving him on central Grounds.
The potential interruption of classes was also central to the University’s decision: “While there are certainly financial implications … the primary reasons for declining the offer were related to disruption of the first days of [Monday-Wednesday] classes,” Wood said in the statement. That the president would come to speak on the second day of class — a day important to some who may want to drop, routine for others who go over names or a syllabus — is a moot point; so long as school is in session, there will always be classes. For instance, some students will be having midterms during elections. Then, as now, students with a political bent will be subject to difficult choices until the University rightly decides to give civic engagement an equal weight to classroom engagement.
The Obama campaign decided to relocate to a downtown podium at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, and the reality is that many students will still attend. Now only the devoted will hear the president speak, when instead the less engaged might have listened had he come closer. A presidential election comes once every four years, and students should not have to remember it as the only semester they ever skipped classes.