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Jenkins to serve on board for debates

Megan Doyle | Tuesday, October 25, 2011

University President Fr. John Jenkins was elected to the Board of Directors for the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has sponsored all U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988, according to a University press release.

Michael McCurry, co-chair of the commission, said Jenkins is the first university president to be elected to the Board.

“We try to bring interesting and prominent people on the commission to add to the work that we do,” McCurry said. “I think everyone agreed that Fr. John was someone who would bring this extraordinary integrity to the process and someone who is genuinely committed to dialogue on these issues.”

The non-partisan, non-profit commission’s purpose is to provide oversight and guidance for the fall general election debates between major candidates for the presidency, McCurry said.

“[We try to] design a format that really tries to get the maximum dialogue between the candidates,” McCurry said. “How do you encourage the candidates to have real debate around the issues rather than reciting their favorite talking points?”

McCurry said he first met Jenkins several years ago, but he began to think of him in the context of the commission after the president delivered a speech at Emory University earlier this year.

“Such divisiveness makes politics not only unpleasant,” Jenkins said in the speech. “It makes it harder to come together to address our nation’s challenges. If we choose to attack our opponents before we have taken the time to understand them, if we prefer denunciations to genuine dialogue, if we seek political victory rather than constructive compromise … we will not be able to find solutions to the problems before us.”

McCurry said these points highlighted the commission’s overall purpose.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s exactly what the country needs right now,'” McCurry said.

As the commission tries to engage younger voters in these issues, McCurry said Jenkins’ voice will be an important one on the board.

“One of the things that we are very anxious about is how do you make these debates … accessible and interesting to younger people, the 18- to 25-year-old voter,” McCurry said. “We all thought Fr. John, as a member of the university community with lots of contact with young people and younger voters, would be helpful in that.”

The CPD’s responsibilities include selecting a site for each of the four election debates, coordinating dates, picking debate moderators and determining the format for the debates, McCurry said. He also said the commission is currently fielding applications from organizations looking to host one of four debates for the 2012 election.

Since the commission’s inception in 1987, McCurry said it has been successful in making the debates an expected fixture during presidential elections. However, he said the greatest challenge lies in making those debates both informative and interesting for voters.

“How do you walk that fine line between institutionalization and innovation?” McCurry asked. “We’ve had lots of discussions with Google and Facebook and Twitter about how you can engage through social media a larger group of people who don’t do appointment television. They don’t just sit down in front of the TV screen … they like to interact and participate.”

McCurry said the entire committee felt positively about Jenkins’ election. He called Jenkins’ appointment a “slam dunk.”

“It was probably the easiest election I have ever participated in,” McCurry said. “[The entire board] was unanimously enthusiastic.”