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The University of Alabama

UA Student Leadership Brings Gubernatorial Debate to Campus

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A campus ideas session 16 months ago among a group of strongly motivated students has produced two opportunities for the people of Alabama to weigh candidates for governor during the 2010 election.

The effort, led by recent University of Alabama graduate and Blackburn Institute fellow Jimmy Young, produced the Thursday, Sept. 16, gubernatorial debate on The University of Alabama campus as well as another debate Tuesday, Oct. 19, in Auburn. Students will have a chance to get tickets to the debates between Dr. Robert Bentley and Commissioner Ron Sparks, an opportunity that Young hopes will pay dividends through students’ increased interest and participation in politics.

The televised UA debate will be at 7 p.m. in the Concert Hall in the Moody Music Building.

Jimmy Young, left, Marshall Houston and James Fowler

“We hope this debate engages students in the upcoming elections,” says Young, who majored in history and finance. “I was told when we first started this process that there are statistics that show if you vote between the ages of 18 and 24, you’re more likely to continue voting for the rest of your life.

“Creating that environment on campus, we hope, stimulates students to be more engaged in politics, so they’ll continue to pay attention from here on out.”

In many ways, the planning and implementation of the debates reflects the public-mindedness of students in the Blackburn Institute, a selective campus organization of student fellows who strive to have a clear understanding of the challenges facing Alabama.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students to be engaged in the political process,” says Dr. Philip Westbrook, director of the institute. “UA students have taken the lead in educating their fellow students and citizens across the state. This will be a major debate of this election cycle and give voters the opportunity to learn about the candidates first-hand.”

The debates are sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Student Government Associations of UA and Auburn. Young joined with fellow Blackburn fellows and students Marshall Houston and Matt Wilson, as well as SGA members Jameson Hughston and President James Fowler in planning the debates, an arduous task that began well before Alabamians knew who the candidates would be.

Young and his colleagues gathered support from a wide swath of UA officials, including UA President Robert E. Witt.

“We started off by meeting all summer with every university administrator we could,” Young says. “All of them gave us their resounding approval. We started this off as something that was going to be one debate in Tuscaloosa, but through our meetings with university administrators we realized this needed to be a collaborative effort with Auburn. So, we called Auburn and got them involved. Now, you’ll have a series of debates, one here and one at Auburn.”

Young says the campaigns, once the candidates from each party were established, have been helpful in putting it all together.

“We initially contacted the campaigns in March,” Young says. “We were well ahead of the curve. We sent them material early, knowing that they weren’t going to be able to commit, but we needed to make them aware of it. Our mindset the entire time was that we were going to put together an event that they would not want to miss.

“You have to drive forward knowing that, at the end of the day, the campaigns still have to agree to come, but if you don’t do the work beforehand, you can’t provide the best event possible.”

Young notes that Alabama’s League of Women Voters was extremely helpful in the effort to organize the debates.

“They were able to bring in a lot of past materials and experience that helped in our planning,” Young says.

The UA debate, hosted by National Public Radio correspondent Debbie Elliot, required planning many details, including the format the candidates will follow and broadcasting the debate through Alabama Public Television and the Internet.

What they’re doing, Young says, is a direct outgrowth from the goals of the Blackburn Institute. Young, who is from Pensacola, Fla., feels thoroughly engaged in the policy issues that will affect Alabama.

“Going through that program for two years sparks an interest and passion in you,” Young says. “It made me want to stay in the state of Alabama, and it helps creates ideas such as the debate.”

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.