Alison Leland, special assistant to the Provost and political science professor embodies compassion and courage. On Wednesday, 23 years after the death of her husband, congressman Mickey Leland, she had the hot table in a ballroom full of erudite scholars.
Her table was one of many held at this year’s Great Conversation, the annual fundraiser for The Honors College held at the Houston Country Club.
Leland, 30 at the time of the tragedy, speaks frequently about her students, is quite proud of their ability to discern truth from posturing. She ratchets up the word smart to an intergalactic level.
Leland hosted the Rick Perry “Texas on the National Stage” table.
“The Honors College is a place of ideas and discussion, so rather than having a dinner with one speaker, it’s exciting to see dozens of conversations going on at tables around the room,” Leland said.
Adjacent to Leland was Assistant Dean Christine LeVeaux’s “Hope and Change” table populated largely by Democrats, including Bill Kelly, who served as chief of staff for Ellen Cohen during her days in the Texas Legislature.
Conversation at that table moved so briskly, LeVeaux left her spinach salad untouched and moved straight into the main course of Tuscan breast of chicken.
“The Great Conversation got its start 20 years ago when Jane Cizik wanted to share her exciting experience as a student in the Honors College with her friends in the community,” recalls Honors College Dean William Monroe, who hosted the table, “Tree of Life: The Films of Terrence Malick.”
The event represents safe ground where religion and politics may be raised rather than repressed.
One of the interesting things about the event, Monroe said, is how much the faculty learn.
“Twenty years and over 500 conversations have changed the way we think of ourselves as professors and, in some cases, the direction of our research. We hope that the Houston community has benefited as much as we have,” Monroe said, as he finished his key lime mousse torte.
“UH faculty don’t come to the event already knowing the answers — it’s not a lecture and it’s not a debate. People are hungry for real conversation.”
“I was very impressed by the diversity of the topics and the flavor of the conversations,” said Latha Ramchand, dean of the C.T. Bauer College of Business. “I was delighted to meet several Honors College alumni that were business majors and was inspired to hear their stories. I would have loved to float around and spend time at each table.”
Ramchand’s “big take-away” was that while technology is bringing the community together in many ways, there is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.
“The Great Conversation connects the University to the broader Houston community in a positive and personal way,” said Richard Murray, who hosted his 19th table for the Honors College. “I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with over 200 individuals since the event began.”
The annual fundraiser has attracted more than $2 million over the years for student scholarships. Chairs for this year’s event are Deborah Brochstein and Connie Simmons Taylor, an Honors College alumna.
The event’s format mirrors a class from the Honors core curriculum called The Human Situation, a two-semester, mandatory class for all Honors College students based on the Socratic model of dialogue between professors and pupils.