UT–Rio Grande Valley Shares on Hosting a Gubernatorial Debate

Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke went head-to-head during their Sept. 30 debate for governor of the Lone Star State, but the issues they discussed were hardly exclusive to Texas. That’s one of the reasons hosting the event at the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley was such a unique experience for student union and conference services staff.

“This debate was interesting as the race gained national attention beyond Texas politics,” said Edna Zambrano-Martinez, unions and conference services director of the Edinburg-based institution. “There were several national news outlets on campus, and that type of media attention was great for our university.”

Zambrano-Martinez’s Student Union and Conference and Events Services team took the lead in coordinating services and the facilities agreement between the campus and Nexstar Media Inc., the company that negotiated the debate with the candidates and chose UTRGV as the host location.

“Nexstar scouted several campuses around the state of Texas and ultimately chose the University of Texas Rio–Grande Valley,” said Zambrano-Martinez, who also volunteers as ACUI’s DEI Program Team co-chare. “The planning process took place over seven weeks with only two in-person meetings thanks to the ease of Zoom. We spent most of our time identifying their technical needs and assessing what the university would or would not be able to provide.”

Hosting the only debate between the two candidates took a village. Numerous departments from across the campus got involved, including campus dining, information technology, parking and transportation, governmental and community relations, and campus facilities. Student employees acted as ushers and set up tables and signs on the day of the debate. The school’s assistant police chief led security efforts, including critical coordination with all local and state law enforcement and emergency services.

Karen Dorado, director of special programs and community relations for the University Marketing & Communication department, was essential in drafting documents, connecting partners, and coordinating several media inquiries.

“The amount of media attention was extraordinary,” Zambrano-Martinez said. “Various departments on campus were responding to questions from the community wanting to attend the event and from media outlets wanting to write stories about hosting the debate.”

The university also addressed Nexstar’s decision not to include a live audience inside the Performing Arts Building where the debate was held.

“The university fielded many questions about that, even though we were not in charge of production; we were only the venue,” Zambrano-Martinez said. “Our advice would be to make sure the media company you work with puts out a press release early enough featuring that information and their justification.”

The event was available via broadcast or digital live stream in every county in the state, reaching millions of viewers. Zambrano-Martinez said she and Dorado enjoyed working closely with and learning from Nexstar’s production, set design, lighting, cameras, and media relations teams.

“There were many details to be considered, and we were grateful that the media company was able to feature our university prominently during the broadcast,” she said. “It was great for publicity in markets where the university would not normally be seen.”

Students chimed in on issues ranging from gun violence to abortion via Twitter using the hashtag #studentstweetpolitics. Several students commented on the issue of raising teacher pay after both Gov. Greg Abbott and O’Rourke claimed to be pro-teacher and pro-education.

“Teachers help bring up the next generation of leaders; they should not be overlooked,” wrote Twitter user4 @ruthcamacho_.

The arrangement also provided valuable learning opportunities for the journalism and communications department. “They showed the students and faculty the set, all of the equipment, and how they prepared for the production,” Zambrano-Martinez said. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some of our students and faculty.”


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email (cpreusler@thewymancompany.com) with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.