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Prof engages in first 'conversation'

Everyone has seen the prototypical college admissions brochure picture: a diverse group of students discussing worldly issues with their professor, preferably outside of the classroom.

That fantasy became a reality Monday night, when 13 undergraduates enjoyed dinner with Ron Rotunda, a George Mason University law professor and renowned legal expert.

The dinner was the first sponsored event of the "Duke Conversations" initiative, through which the University pays the traveling expenses and costs of any person invited to a roundtable dinner discussion, so long as the guest forgoes a speaking fee.

Rotunda was at Duke for a debate later in the evening, but he first entertained student queries over Greek food and cabernet sauvignon at Taverna Nikos in Brightleaf Square.

Students peppered him with questions ranging from judicial philosophy to the performance of President George W. Bush. Rotunda even responded to rumors that he could be a dark-horse Supreme Court nominee.

"They haven't called me yet," he said with a chuckle.

Bill English, Trinity '03 and a second- year graduate student in political science, organized Monday's dinner and said he was "extraordinarily pleased" that the Duke Conversations program exists. He initially requested a small contribution toward Rotunda's hotel bill, but said he was encouraged to organize a full-scale discussion on the University's tab.

English reminisced about when he was an undergraduate, noting that the most valuable part of his education was interacting with his professors over meals. "This is not phony or in a classroom," he said. "It is a genuine exchange of ideas that is good for undergraduate social life."

Andrea Caldwell, director of the "Duke Conversations" program, said the initiative represents something new for Duke. "We are encouraging the spirit of having engaging conversations that are not contrived or forced," Caldwell said.

The initiative, however, has shown signs of growing pains. Just three to four speakers have been confirmed for this semester, although student affairs has received about a dozen inquiries.

Caldwell said the program involves a "grassroots effort" and will build momentum leading up to second semester.

After announcements were posted in August and e-mails sent out to certain organizations, there was a lull in publicity for the program. Now, however, new flyers scream "GOT TALK" in bright blue lettering and challenge students to invite conversationalists ranging from activists to musicians to inventors.

Sophomore Andy Cunningham said he had a hard time finding the right person to talk to when he wanted to bring in a speaker for Round Table selective living group. Once he got in touch with Caldwell, however, he described the program as outstanding. "The process for applying to 'Conversations' was incredibly smooth and surprisingly easy," he wrote in an e-mail.

Eric Van Danen, director of communications for student affairs, noted that the program's success will be "measured by the quality and experience, not simply the number of speakers."

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