The former Alaska governor is set to headline at the 50th anniversary celebration at California State University, Stanislaus, which in recent days has transformed its humble cafeteria into a glitzy Gala Hall, draped with crimson tablecloths and surrounded by chain-link fences.
Palin's speech has generated intense intrigue and scrutiny since the nonprofit foundation holding the event first announced her visit in March. Officials have refused to divulge the terms of her contract, her speaking fee, or any additional details about her trip to California.
News of Palin's requirements only came to light after students fished several pages of the contract from a trash bin, which prompted California Attorney General Jerry Brown to launch an investigation into the finances of the university's foundation arm and allegations that the nonprofit violated public disclosure laws.
"We cannot believe the stuff that has gone on with our campus over Sarah Palin's visit," said Alicia Lewis, 26, who was one of the students who retrieved piles of paperwork, including pieces of the contract document, from a trash container in April. "And now they're fencing the campus off? It's outrageous."
University spokeswoman Eve Hightower said the extensive fencing and extra security were standard procedure for large campus events, and said the university had remained open to students going to class.
Friday's sold-out dinner will bring in more than $200,000, making the gala the most successful fundraiser in the university's history, said university foundation board president Matt Swanson.
"We're not here to make a political statement, we're here to make money," said Swanson. "This event has surpassed all of our expectations."
Most of the money raised comes from new donors, Hightower said. The funds will help pay for a variety of pressing campus needs, which the foundation will determine after consulting with university officials, she said.
By Friday afternoon, the dining hall had been festooned with orchids and tulips, and two large white pillars decorated with golden branches stood sentry. Cooks were preparing a five-course meal featuring lobster napoleon, scallops, and grilled Angus beer tenderloin with red wine sauce, accompanied by a wine selection from local Central Valley vintner E. & J. Gallo Winery.
About 100 protesters stood outside the cafeteria on the campus' leafy grounds raising up a Sarah Palin-shaped pinata and signs lettered "Spill, Baby, Spill" and "Open The Books," and chanting about school budget cuts.
The rural university, like dozens of other public colleges, has had to cut some classes and cancel several scholarships as a result of California's ongoing financial woes.
"The campus is spending thousands and thousands of dollars to hire a divisive political figure to come here. There's something wrong with that, when they've turned away people for scholarships," said Josh Esteves, a protest organizer with Valley Progressives, a local left-leaning political group.
A group of about 30 Palin supporters from local tea party chapters also came to campus Friday afternoon, waving large American flags.
Palin, who was scheduled to arrive on campus by 7 p.m., reportedly had her hair done in a Modesto salon Friday afternoon and had checked into a local hotel.
The former governor has endorsed former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carly Fiorina in her bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, but a Fiorina spokeswoman said Palin would not be making any stops on behalf of the campaign.