University of Virginia Refuses Obama Visit Request

UVA says a presidential visit isn't worth the hassle or expense. They're right.

President Obama wanted to speak at the University of Virginia on a campaign swing through Charlottesville. UVA said no.

NBC29 (“UVA Declines Obama Campaign Request“):

A University of Virginia spokeswoman says President Barack Obama will not be at the university when he comes to Charlottesville on Wednesday. In a statement released Friday, it was confirmed that the university declined the president’s request to speak at UVA.

UVA says the Obama campaign requested the use of one of two outdoor venues – the Amphitheater or the Harrison-Small Library plaza. The university declined the request for a number of reasons including class cancellations, which UVA estimates could be more than 186 classes on the second day of school. The other main reason is they would have to take on the full cost of security, and because of university policy and their federal and state tax exempt status, they would have to offer the same opportunity to the other candidate so as not to show favor for either candidate.

Virginia’s top Democrat is playing down the snub. While stopping in Albemarle County, Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Brian Moran told NBC29, “We’re proud that he’s coming. We’re very excited that he’s coming to Charlottesville, regardless of where in Charlottesville. Charlottesville is known for the University of Virginia, so I don’t think that’s going to be missed on anyone.”

Other than the denied request from the university, questions still remain about the where and when of the event.

The report includes this statement from a university spokesman:

I am writing to tell you that the University met with five members of the Obama Presidential Campaign on Wednesday. The campaign requested the use of one of two outdoor University venues — the Amphitheater or the Harrison-Small Library plaza. After reviewing the campaign’s request for either of these two sites and the impact on the University, the University declined the request for the following reasons:

  • As you know, Aug. 29 is the second day of classes overall and the first day of classes on the Monday/Wednesday/Friday academic schedule.
  • The use of either of the desired sites would require closing buildings adjacent to the sites for the entire day.
  • The cancellation of 186 classes would occur if the site is the Amphitheater or closing of the libraries and Newcomb dining if the site is the Harrison-Small plaza. This would result in an extraordinary disruption of the second day of the new semester.
  • In addition to the disruption to classes, the University would have to bear the full cost of security — a substantial and open-ended expenditure of staff time and money.
  • By University policy, we would also have to offer the same accommodations and bear the same costs for other candidates. Both our federal and state tax-exempt status requires that we not favor any candidate.
  • The Secret Service will have final approval on the site chosen and will dictate the security requirements, but at a minimum the buildings adjacent to the event venue would need to be closed on Aug. 29. Adjacent buildings will be searched and secured with officers posted in each starting at least 6 hours prior to the event.

Additional details: The use of McIntire Amphitheater would require the closing of the following buildings on Aug. 29: Bryan Hall, Cocke Hall, Garrett Hall, Minor Hall, and possibly Maury Monroe halls. The parking lots behind Bryan and Clark would have to be closed for the day, as well as a portion of McCormick Road.

The use of the Harrison-Small Special Collections Library would require the closing of the Alderman Library, Special Collections Library, the temporary dining facility, Peabody Hall, and possibly Monroe Hall, the rooms along the West Range and a portion of McCormick Road.

While my initial reaction to the headline was credulous—Why would a university possibly not want the President of the United States on its campus? Don’t they realize this is a unique opportunity for their students, many of whom may never otherwise get to see any president, much less this one, in person?—the decision actually makes a great deal of sense. It would be one thing if Obama were an invited speaker at graduation or the evening. But it would indeed be highly disruptive to close half the campus on the first day of class for all the MWF courses. And, even at an elite school like UVA, which presumably has an easier time of raising alumni funds than lesser state schools, the expenses of presidential security are hard to justify to accommodate a campaign swing.

So, instead of writing to chastise UVA officials for a boneheaded decision, let me instead reiterate a favorite hobby horse: The level of security surrounding the president and other American politicians is absurd. Yes, there have been attempts to kill presidents in the past; some successful. Yes, the murder of a president is a national tragedy of unique impact. And, yes, Obama is particularly at risk given the animus directed at his race and heritage. Still, there has to be a way to provide him with a reasonable level of security without disrupting the lives of everyone in a ten mile radius.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Education, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    I do not understand this desire to see a President, in person. I/ve declined several opportunities to be in the same room with a President for the very reason that I find the security treatment annoying and demeaning. Necessary, but hardly a reason for me to be annoyed when it can be avoided.

    In UVA’s case, it would be proper for students to demand a refund for the cancelled classes and services. Unless, of course it is the credential, not the education they are selling.

    In any case, a bold move by UVA as Obama and his people are not know for being understanding but are known to be vindictive over perceived slights.

  2. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    The Romney campaign picks up their own tab for campaign visits. If they come to town, they’ll cut your local government a check for the added security and other expenses.

    When the Obama campaign comes to town, you pick up the check — most reports I’ve seen put it into a healthy five figures.

    There’s a certain symbolism there…

  3. bk says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    By University policy, we would also have to offer the same accommodations and bear the same costs for other candidates.

    So then the spokesperson from UVA was lying, then?

  4. Scott says:

    Yes, the level of security seems to be absurd. Has it gotten much more over the last decade? I was at Kelly AFB here in Texas when Clinton came to visit and there wasn’t much security. Granted it was an AF base but there were 15,000 people on it and anybody determined wouldn’t have had too much trouble bypassing and security measures.

    Anyway, it just shows how we have exalted the presidency to levels that are not healthy and we have take risk aversion to an extreme. We should know that no one is irreplaceable as harsh as that sounds.

  5. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @bk: I’ve seen several stories where communities were stuck with 30K tabs for Obama visits, and statements that the Romney campaign picks up its tab.

    An easy solution would be for the Obama campaign to offer UVA a “Romney deal,” but Obama’s only generous with other people’s money.

  6. george says:

    Why would the university have to pick up the security tab? I’d have thought that would either have been covered by the federal gov’t (if he’s coming as President), or by the Democratic party (if he’s coming as a candidate).

  7. James Joyner says:

    @george: We’ve written about this before: The Secret Service pays its own expenses but a presidential visit requires substantial ancillary police support, which is typically covered by the jurisdiction.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: You may have not noticed, but there’s a big difference between Romney and Obama: one of them isn’t the POTUS and the other one is.

    When you yowl as loudly about Bush Jr, Bush Sr, Reagan, and all the other Republican presidents Not Paying For Their Visits and Having The Taxpayer Pay, then I’ll believe you actually mean something.

    I also think that the high level of security surrounding Obama is appropriate. Have you read some of the stuff that gets spouted on the birfer and other far-right sites? These people are nutty enough to try to assassinate the POTUS.

  9. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @grumpy realist: I agree with you and disagree with james about the appropriate level of security for Obama — in addition to all the other factors involved, I have nightmares about Joe Biden assuming the office.

    But there is absolutely no reason for Obama’s campaign to NOT pick up the expenses local communities incur from a presidential campaign visit, and no reason why the communities should have to pay so much for the “privilege.”

    As far as the expenses go… both campaigns have huge war chests, and this is the kind of thing that the money should be used for.

    Here’s a little lesson: Nothing is free. Just because the Obama campaign doesn’t want to pay for things doesn’t mean they still don’t have a cost. And someone has to pay that cost. If not the Obama campaign, then the local community has to scrape up the (approx.) 30K so Obama can have his little campaign event.

    Romney seems to understand this (no surprise there), and his campaign’s been pretty good about not screwing over their hosts. Obama… not so much. (No surprise there, either.)

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Wasn’t some law passed recently ago about what expenses the President should pick up when he was campaigning vs. when he was speaking as POTUS? It may have been a bill that was never passed.

    Also, I don’t see your denouncing all the Republican presidents who took advantage of the very same situation.

  11. Bubba says:

    I live near Savannah, where we just uncovered a large domestic terror network of active-duty soldiers plotting to kill the president. You think security is too slack? snicker snicker

  12. OhioRiver says:

    Well, I presume Obama assumes people or universities will change their whole lives just so he can do what he wants done. It’s going to be a hard life after the November elections when he is placed in the group of masses. He’ll never be in the same league with Jimmy Carter as the worst president because Carter was honest & the FOIA worked so well.