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Talking Controversy over Café au Lait

Dean of Students’ weekly Coffee and Conversation series asks tough questions

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Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore leads weekly discussions on controversial topics chosen by students.

When he arrived at Boston University as dean of students in 2003, Kenneth Elmore cleared his Friday afternoons to get to know students. He initiated Coffee and Conversation, a two-hour weekly meeting at which students, usually 10 to 20 of them, could voice their complaints about the University.

But students grew tired of hearing the same criticisms, says Elmore (SED’87), so he began thinking up topics for discussion. Now, Coffee and Conversation, which meets every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Howard Thurman Center, draws up to 70 students, who come to discuss world affairs and debate contentious topics.

“It’s been a great jump,” Elmore says. “People come by and want to talk about some issues.”

Themes, now chosen by students, range from race, religion, and gay rights to education, U.S. foreign policy, and the Middle East. The subjects are controversial, so “it always gets heated,” Elmore says.

The discussions may get heated, but they don’t get personal. Joe Mroszczyk (CAS’07), president of the College Republicans, says he is one of the few conservative voices at many of the meetings. Although many students argue with him, he has never felt attacked by his peers. “Some people probably disagree intensely with me, but I mostly do with them as well,” Mroszczyk says. “That’s what is great about the conversation.”

Elmore says that the ability to argue effectively is essential, and the Friday get-togethers help students sharpen those skills. “I see our students as people who will hold leadership positions,” he says. “I think it is good practice for the rest of their lives.”

Brooke Feldman (CAS’08, SED’08), president of the Student Union, has attended Coffee and Conversation meetings for more than a year. “I love the contemporary, controversial topics,” she says.

The conversations are informal; students dart in and out between classes and don’t have to be experts to contribute. “I think it’d be great to have a Nobel Prize winner from Boston University who was inspired by a topic sparked at Coffee and Conversation,” says Elmore. “I love that possibility.”

As facilitator, Elmore keeps his own perspectives to himself; he doesn’t want his beliefs and opinions to compromise the argument. Using what he calls essential literature, such as Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, by Amy Chua, Elmore researches the weekly discussion topic and plays devil’s advocate.

Indeed, Elmore’s enthusiasm for the opposition is the best part of the meeting, says Donovan Morrison (CAS’07). “He always puts on that extra personality and comedy when he is arguing against you rather than when he is arguing for you,” he says.

Coffee and Conversation is still evolving. This semester, Elmore moved the time from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. to accommodate students’ schedules and replaced the disposable coffee cups with reusable plastic cups because of student concerns about the environment. In the future, he would like to start a class using his Friday afternoon gatherings as a model.

Elmore says he looks forward to Coffee and Conversation all week. “When I say to my colleagues, ‘I’ve got the best job on campus,’ I see it through Coffee and Conversation,” he says.

The next Coffee and Conversation is tomorrow, Friday, April 6, at 3 p.m. in the Howard Thurman Center, 775 Commonwealth Ave.

Kathleen Dowling can be reached at dowlingk@bu.edu.