• Janet H. Brown, the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)
    Janet H. Brown, the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)

Janet H. Brown, the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), will serve as Southwestern University’s 2016 commencement speaker on Saturday, May 7, 2016, at the Corbin J. Robertson Center from 10 a.m. to Noon.

“Given the drama of the 2016 presidential race and the national issues raised by the many debates, this is the ideal moment in our country’s history for Ms. Brown to share her insights, perspectives, and reflections with the public,” says Southwestern President, Edward Burger, Ph.D. “Thus, I am delighted that she has accepted our invitation to deliver the Commencement Address at Southwestern University. I believe her message will enlighten the entire community and inspire our students to continue to think, create, and connect in their future endeavors—practices of mind that have been honed during their education at Southwestern.”

With the 2016 presidential debates and election year in full swing, Southwestern talked with Brown to learn what it’s like to be in her shoes.

Q & A with Janet H. Brown

You’ve been the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates since 1987. What led you to that position? Tell us about your role.

My being considered for the executive director job at the CPD was total serendipity.  I had worked in government almost continuously since college (with a break for grad school), and when the CPD was formed in February, 1987 a friend asked if it would be ok to submit my name as a candidate.  We have a tiny staff and my role is broad.  It includes working with our board of directors, assembling the production team, overseeing site selection, and working with the television networks, the Secret Service and our voter education partners.  We have a very flat organization – everybody answers the phone, runs the copier and gets coffee.

Nearly 30 years is a long time (especially in this day and age!) to stay in one position. What keeps you coming back year after year?

It’s a great privilege to work for the CPD.  No two debates are alike, no two debate years are identical.  Getting to know the campuses where we hold debates is terrific, and lasting and cherished friendships are built in the process. Collaborating with our voter education partners is another source of great satisfaction—they are committed to maximizing the value of these forums, particularly to people who may be eligible to vote for the first time. Increasingly, we also work with non-profit groups overseas that are trying to start leadership debates in their own countries, which is deeply inspiring.  It’s a constant learning process.

Since 2016 is a Presidential Election year, this is your busy season. What does this time of year look like for you?

We are in the middle of conducting technical surveys of the debate sites during which our production crew visits each site to make critical decisions about lighting, sets, audio, engineering and logistics.  By May, we’ll be leading media surveys of the sites where members of the White House television pool will make an additional set of important decisions regarding the broadcast.

From on-camera interviews to sponsoring and producing the debates, it seems like you would be on-the-go non-stop. What goes into producing a debate, and how long does it take?

The debates take more than two years to plan and produce. We started conversations with the TV networks and federal law enforcement agencies in late 2013. Our site selection process started on January 2, 2015 and proposals from potential debate sites were due three months later. From the beginning, the CPD board of directors has believed that since the debates are about education, it is appropriate and beneficial to hold them on college and university campuses so students can be involved. This means building a sophisticated debate set and a large media filing center on each campus while respecting the ongoing educational mission which obviously takes precedence. It requires a lot of work, but past experience shows it is totally worth it. Witness the number of campuses that have hosted a debate and then bid again in a subsequent debate cycle.

What are some of the most memorable times (whether it be the wildest, fondest, or most controversial of memories) that have happened over the years during the presidential debates?

Every debate has its own character and each is memorable for different reasons. The best part, hands down, is working with the CPD team. Debates are the ultimate in teamwork—everybody has to play his or her position, and if need be, move in a different direction to cover for a teammate who’s been pulled out of position. The phrase “I’ve got your back” is perhaps overused and under-implemented—the CPD team is Exhibit A of this phrase in action around the clock.

What do you believe one of the hottest topics that we, the voters, need to be paying attention to during this election cycle?

The hottest “topic” is perhaps not a topic but a practice:  everybody needs to listen during this election year. There are many important topics and much that each of us should try to learn. The best way to do that is to stop offering one’s own opinion and listen to the candidates, not only for president but all offices, federal, state and local. Listen to your fellow citizens. Ask questions. Read.  Learn. Make up your own mind.

What do you do in your rare spare time to de-stress and unwind?

Hanging with our Labrador Retriever is a guaranteed de-stressor. She places much greater emphasis on toys, food and walks than she does on politics.

What are you most looking forward to in visiting Southwestern and speaking at Commencement?

Commencements are opportunities to celebrate achievement and learning and give thanks for friendships, the generosity of family, the commitment of teachers and coaches, and time shared at a special place. It’s an honor to be invited to participate in Southwestern’s commencement and I’m looking forward to all of it, especially watching the graduates’ faces when they receive their diplomas. It’s pretty great to have a front row seat to such happiness.