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Review seeks to better Conversations

Duke Conversations, a four-year-old program that allows students to bring compelling individuals to campus, has undergone a makeover.

After a review by administrators, faculty and students, the program has been modified to expand participation from a select group of students to the entire Duke community. One of the most notable changes is the formation of a selection committee composed of faculty, students and staff to approve all nominated guests.

“In the past, as long as your application fit the criteria, you could bring your guest, assuming there were resources to do that,” said Deborah Hackney, an assistant director of the Office of Student Activities and Facilities who works with the program. “If you said someone was interesting, as long as you were following the policies, we said they were interesting too.”

Funding for the program has also been reduced from $150,000 to $100,000 because some resources went unused last year, Hackney wrote in an e-mail.

The impetus for change came last Fall from President Brodhead, who asked Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education, to convene a review committee to look closely into Duke Conversations and suggest areas for improvement. Nowicki found that the program—which pays for the travel, room and board for guests to come to campus and spend time with a small number of students—was not always provoking the kind of discussions that had been intended.

The program was being used by a relatively small number of students who were inviting a large number of guests, he said.  He also noticed that many recent graduates were being brought back to campus.

“Sure, they were interesting and doing interesting things, but they seemed to be invited because they were friends with the people who asked them to come,” Nowicki said. “That is not what we had wanted.”

Selecting individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds is an important part of the new changes.

“We are looking for a diversity of experience, industry and thought,” Hackney said. “We’re asking, ‘Is this a perspective you would hear already at Duke, or is this something new?’”

Conversations have always consisted of a dinner with the guest, the student host and a limited number of other students, but future dinners will be restricted to on-campus eateries. Also new this year is “Community Hour,” an event with 25 to 50 students that gives guests an opportunity to tell their story, host a question-and-answer session or teach a master class—anything besides a traditional speech. Senior Samiyyah Ali, an OSAF student intern and the chair of this year’s selection committee, said she especially supports this change.

“I think the Community Hour is the biggest part of the program now,” Ali said.  “It allows people to come together to learn about something they wouldn’t otherwise get to hear about, particularly people who don’t have access to these kinds of opportunities in their classroom settings.”

Senior Isaac Warren used the program last year to bring Brazilian martial arts expert Valder de Fernandes to campus. He also attended the focus group held by administrators over the summer and said he supported most but not all of the committee’s work.

“They said that they wanted student groups to try to use funding from other sources to bring in speakers, but they didn’t prohibit the groups from using Conversations,” he said. “Some of the rules were not well thought out or well enforced.”

The committee will also be replacing the rolling guest nomination process with two distinct deadlines. Applications for Fall conversations must be submitted by Sept. 14, and applications for Spring conversations will be due in November.

Evaluations will be given to all guests and their student hosts in order to judge the efficiency and effectiveness of the program, and administrators will continue to monitor usage patterns to see if the program is evolving to meet campus needs.

“I’d like to see Duke Conversations become something that is recognized across the country and across the world as being prestigious, as being an honor,” Nowicki said. “I think that’s possible. That’s part of what we want to do—to expose Duke students to the world, but also to design the program in a way so that the world is exposed to Duke students.”

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