UM required to pay $2.5M, other expenses for presidential debate

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan agreed to pay at least $2.5 million to secure the Oct. 15, 2020 presidential debate at Crisler Center, according to a contract obtained by The Detroit News. 

It is just the beginning of the expenses the university will pay to comply with its contract with the Commission on Presidential Debates, according to a copy obtained through an open records request. 

One of the three 2020 presidential debates will be held at the University of Michigan's Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.

The university’s steering committee has been visiting universities that have previously held a presidential debate to assess the final cost, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.  

Hofstra University in New York told the Associated Press it expected to spend roughly $5 million as a debate host in 2016. 

“We’re working very carefully to understand the magnitude of those costs so we can fundraise and budget appropriately,” Fitzgerald said. The university intends to use only donor funds to finance the event. 

UM announced last month that it had been selected as one of three debate hosts, alongside the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

The first and most recent presidential debate hosted in Michigan took place at the Wharton Center in East Lansing on Oct. 19, 1992, and pitted then-President George H.W. Bush against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Texas billionaire businessman and independent Ross Perot.

Even before announcing its selection as debate host Oct. 11, the University of Michigan had to hold or reserve rooms for the commission’s staff, crew and associates, according to the contract. The university was required to pay its first $1.25 million last Friday and the second half by Jan. 4. 

The university also will be required to provide ground transportation for at least the week leading up the debate, air-conditioned, carpeted rooms at the debate venue and catering services “subject to approval by the commission.”

The university must make any security upgrades required by the commission or the U.S. Secret Service, provide carpeted areas within the Crisler Center, adequate signage, provide amenities for hundreds of journalists and potentially host a town hall with the candidates. 

UM must ensure the Crisler Center has “attractive exterior architectural lighting” to display outside the hall “in an attractive manner for remote electronic broadcasts.” The debate hall must be air conditioned, with a set level of humidity, and the noise of the air conditioner must be such that it "does not add to the ambient noise level of the room and does not interfere with media broadcasts."

"The Commission has agreed that Crisler Center’s dimensions are satisfactory and has further agreed that removal of the scoreboard will not be required," the contract said.

UM can recoup some costs through fees assessed on journalists and campaigns, according to the contract. 

The contract also restricts the university’s messaging regarding the debate. 

“Except as required by law,” UM is barred from releasing its agreement, application or proposal to the public or media. Even then, several sections of the contract obtained by The News were redacted because they contained information on “security measures.”

UM needs written permission from the commission “to produce any news release concerning the debate,” the contract said. 

The $2.5 million-plus contract did not need approval from the Board of Regents, Fitzgerald said, and instead was signed by President Mark Schlissel. 

“Typically contract approval is delegated to the president and the administration of the university,” Fitzgerald said.