Presidential Debate Makes History at Ole Miss For Gloria Kellum, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Mississippi (UM), the real winner of the first presidential debate at UM on Sept. 26 was neither John McCain nor Barack Obama—it was the university, which tapped the publicity and the excitement to build a sense of ... Features
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Features  |   November 01, 2008
Presidential Debate Makes History at Ole Miss
Author Notes
  • Carolyn Wiles Higdon, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi and a clinical associate professor at the UM Medical Center. Contact her at carolynwhigdon@aol.com.
    Carolyn Wiles Higdon, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi and a clinical associate professor at the UM Medical Center. Contact her at carolynwhigdon@aol.com.×
Article Information
Professional Issues & Training / Regulatory, Legislative & Advocacy / Features
Features   |   November 01, 2008
Presidential Debate Makes History at Ole Miss
The ASHA Leader, November 2008, Vol. 13, 1-8. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR7.13152008.1
The ASHA Leader, November 2008, Vol. 13, 1-8. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR7.13152008.1
For Gloria Kellum, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Mississippi (UM), the real winner of the first presidential debate at UM on Sept. 26 was neither John McCain nor Barack Obama—it was the university, which tapped the publicity and the excitement to build a sense of community and reshape the university’s image.
“I think people discovered the new—and real—university, the one we all know, where faculty and staff are dedicated to the students, and alumni return that commitment,” said Kellum, an ASHA member who serves as vice chancellor for university relations at UM, located in the small town of Oxford (named for Oxford, England). UM was founded in 1848 with 80 students and has been home to well-known writers such as William C. Faulkner and John Grisham. Students, faculty, and local residents agree that the debate gave the town—and the deep South—a chance for a fresh introduction after the infamous racial conflicts of the 1960s.
“What better opportunity could there be for UM than hosting the first African-American running for president?” Kellum asked, pointing to the full circle of UM’s history. Former student James Meredith, the first African-American to integrate the campus in 1962, changed the way people remember the university and the state, she said, adding that Meredith, now 75, wrote to her expressing his pride in the debate.
Kellum helped plan the national event with Chancellor Robert Khayat. Campus officials turned down journalists who approached UM about hosting a 2004 debate because security demands for a sitting president would be too arduous. “Basically we would have had to shut down the town and university for three or four days,” Kellum recalled.
Event Planning
After UM’s Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2002, campus officials decided to seek a presidential debate and applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Robert M. Hearin Foundation in Jackson, Miss., to underwrite the event. The Commission on Presidential Debates notified UM in October 2007 that it had been selected for the first 2008 presidential debate. Immediately the university set up a steering committee with 12 subcommittees on information technology, physical facilities, programming, fundraising, media strategies, and other event components.
“Our goals were, first and foremost, to give our students the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in American democracy,” Kellum said. “The depth and breadth of the 70 special events and 19 courses held pre-debate will forever have an impact on our students and our community,” she said (see sidebar at right). UM also made physical changes—increasing broadband capabilities, renovating some campus facilities, creating a UM debate Web site, and other infrastructure improvements.
“On a single day we had 212,000 hits on our debate Web site, which allowed an amazing number of people to see the university and Mississippi in a new light,” Kellum said. The debate drew 56 million television viewers.
“The greatest benefit of hosting the first 2008 presidential debate is witnessing the country’s opportunity for a change in American politics—seeing an African-American or a woman have a chance to serve in the highest echelons of democracy,” she said.
Kellum said she hopes all ASHA members will vote in this election—and hopes they will “advocate for those whose communication skills do not allow them to advocate for themselves.”
Students Study Advocacy—and the Debate on Their Doorstep

The University of Mississippi’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) held one of the first presidential-debate related courses, a graduate-level class on grassroots advocacy for which ASHA developed the curriculum core.

In preparation for the debate, students discussed legislative and regulatory advocacy, learned how and why to advocate for their profession, and learned how each speech-language pathologist and audiologist can influence governmental agencies and bills in Congress. Topics included state legislative and regulatory activities, contacting decision-makers, licensure requirements in various states, and federal committees important to the professions. Students also learned about ASHA’s roles, its governmental relations and public policy board, and its political action committee. Students role-played as they learned how to develop effective meetings with state and congressional legislators.

“I feel privileged to have been at the university in this department watching the presidential candidates discuss their plans for turning our nation around,” said second-year CSD graduate student Adrienne Gray, president of the UM chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association. “We all have our opinions on what should be done, but it was comforting to know that we all could come together to be a part of history.”

Holly Burton, first-year CSD graduate student, said the debate “made a lasting, historical imprint on my mind. It makes me so proud that I got to play a small part in one of the nation’s biggest elections.”

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November 2008
Volume 13, Issue 15