More than a year in the making, Belmont’s hosting of a presidential debate became a focal point for the campus and the city this fall. As preparations and programming commenced, the entire community looked ahead to Oct. 22 with great anticipation.

It Takes a Village

The timeline for the October 22 debate began in fall 2018 with initial preparations for an application that was due in March 2019. After the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Belmont’s selection in October 2019, the heavy lifting truly began. A core team of Belmont employees started meeting to plan for spaces, security, infrastructure and technology needs, while committees were formed to tackle educational offerings, special events, volunteers, media, transportation, credentialing, fundraising, student and community engagement and more. As the event grew closer, participants increased. But the numbers of students, faculty and staff involved (more than 400)—and the amount of hours devoted—only hint at the magnitude of what it means to host a presidential debate and the team effort required to do it well.

Exploring “Ideas of America”

Part of that extraordinary effort was seen throughout the fall semester as Belmont offered an impressive slate of academic programs under the overarching theme “The Ideas of America.” University President Dr. Bob Fisher noted, “U2’s lead singer Bono, a native of Ireland, once said that ‘America is an idea… one of the greatest ideas in human history.’ We wanted to lean into that notion by exploring many of the ideas at the heart of the American story: our history, democracy, the vote, the rights and responsibilities of citizens and more. Ultimately, the events and programs we offered celebrated the American spirit and recognized what makes this great nation so unique.”

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on public gatherings, individual Debate 2020 programs were held virtually, enabling audiences in Nashville and beyond to participate. Offerings included a “Ring the Bell” celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, a nonpartisan Unity Flag Project incorporating artists from across the nation, a TEDx Nashville “We the People” presentation, a Humanities Symposium on dialogue and democracy and a four-part series on White House Style. Plus, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein, fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, NPR President/CEO John Lansing, renowned painter Makoto Fujimura, alumni band Moon Taxi and Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford were among this semester’s featured speakers.

Three unique courses were also specifically designed for this fall, including a Public Relations in Action class examining Belmont’s connection to the presidential debate and a media studies class on The Watergate Scandal and All the President’s Men. Faculty Jennifer Duck and Mary Ellen Pethel also co-taught Media, Democracy and the Public Sphere, a course on history and media that was filmed by C-SPAN to be featured on their “Lectures in History” series.

“Ring the Bell” celebration

Unity Flag exhibit

Engaging Our City

As Belmont seeks to be “Nashville’s University,” campus leaders sought from the beginning to engage local students of all ages in educational experiences related to the debate. Of course, being Belmont, those experiences began with a virtual concert in partnership with national nonprofit Rock the Vote. Titled “Rock the Vote at Belmont University: Nashville Colleges Celebrate Democracy,” the event featured student and alumni performances from Belmont, Fisk, MTSU, TSU and Vanderbilt, along with headliner Moon Taxi and special guest Bren Joy (both Belmont alums). Special segments between performances promoted voter registration.

Younger students were welcomed to debate-themed conversations as well. Middle school and high school students enrolled in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) were invited to enter the Presidential Debate Essay Contest. In addition to a cash prize, winning essays were published in the Tennessean, and winning writers could take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Belmont Presidential Debate grounds. Elementary students weren’t left out either, as Belmont partnered with MNPS again to create and distribute 30,000 coloring books to kindergarten through fourth-grade students. The publication, which is available for download at, includes coloring pages reflecting on the presidential election along with activities designed to engage students with vocabulary and concepts aligned to Tennessee state educational standards.