Virginia State University Axed From Hosting 2024 Presidential Debate

By Quintessa Williams

In November 2023, it was announced that Virginia State University would become the first Historically Black college and university (HBCU) to host a presidential debate. Now, a historic debate months in the making at the HBCU has been axed from the list of venues. News of its probable cancellation prompted surprise and disappointment from the university and condemnation from current and former political leaders across the state.

On May 15th, representatives for President Biden told the Commission on Presidential Debates he wouldn’t attend three university forums scheduled for the fall, including the VSU debate on Oct. 1. The campaign cited the Commission’s failure to keep debate audiences under control and to keep candidates from ignoring or violating debate rules as part of the reasons for their decision to not participate.

Soon after, President Biden and former President Donald Trump agreed to two live debates without crowds hosted by news organizations. A CNN debate is now scheduled for Thursday, June 27, followed by a debate on Tuesday, Sept. 10, on ABC.

A statement from VSU expressed the university’s disappointment in the likely cancellation and holds out hope that the situation can be resolved.

“A presidential debate at VSU is a huge win, not only for our students and campus community but for the greater community in general,” VSU officials said. “As the first Historically Black College or University ever selected to host a General Election U.S. Presidential Debate, VSU recognizes the event’s significance and welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the democratic process.”

“We will continue to work closely with the Commission on Presidential Debates and other stakeholders as we assess this situation. VSU will continue to provide updates and further details as they become available.”

When asked about any further actions that have been taken in response to the cancellation, VSU Assistant Vice President for Communications Gwen Williams Dandridge pointed to the statement and said no other debate commitments besides the one to the CPD, who they continue to work with, have been made so far.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder criticized the decision on his blog shortly after. He criticized President Biden for the choice, noting the costs VSU has incurred to prepare a venue and the potential harm it could do to President Biden’s prospects in the election in November.

“Virginia will play a vital role in this year’s presidential election and it is extremely foolhardy for any candidate to take any votes for granted,” Gov. Wilder wrote. “I would say to President Biden, if you choose Virginia State University, Donald Trump CANNOT object. The ball is in your court Mr. President, and the game is on.

Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares also advocated for the VSU debate, noting the historic nature of the college’s selection as a venue. Gov Youngkin blasted the Biden Administration in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“The Biden campaign is refusing to participate in a historic general election presidential debate at [VSU], a great university and HBCU,” the Republican governor wrote in a post on X. “Joe Biden is turning his back on students, Virginians, and the nation because he can’t defend his failing policies. Huge snub to VSU and the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

In November, the CPD set the sites and dates for three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate during the 2024 general election.

The presidential debates were to take place Sept. 16 at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas; Oct. 1 at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia; and Oct. 9 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The vice presidential debate was set for Sept. 25 at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner recently said he has not given up on the possibility of still having a presidential debate at Virginia State University, but at the very least, he feels it is “incumbent” that President Joe Biden comes to the Ettrick campus before the election.

“They’ve obviously made the decision to do the first one at a studio in Atlanta,” he said. “But I still think the second debate we’re going to still push it for VSU. And if for some reason that doesn’t happen, I absolutely believe that it would be incumbent for President Biden to show up at VSU to make his case on why he wants to be re-elected.”

So far, the Biden administration has not responded to the calls to hold the debate at VSU.