Twenty Years After: Jane Cizik and the Origin of The Great Conversation

by Mallory Chesser

On March 28, 2012, after a day of Human Situation discussion sections, science labs, and student conferences, University of Houston faculty will be engaging a different public: more than 300 of Houston’s most intellectually curious entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, business leaders, and benefactors. This diverse assembly will be celebrating the 20th year of The Great Conversation, an award-winning fundraiser that has supported the Honors College and its students since 1993. Jane CizikThat year it was dubbed a “feast for the mind” by Houston Chronicle society columnist Shelby Hodge for its special combination of black-tie dinner and seminar-style conversation. The one-of-a-kind fundraiser is the brainchild of Jane M. Cizik, Honors alumna and advisory board chair, whose unique journey and contributions to the College will be honored at this year’s event.

In the 1970s, Cizik, the wife of a Houston businessman and mother of five, was a life-long reader yearning for a college education. Growing up, she had watched her mother, armed with only an 8th grade education and a reading list from a professor, pore over the classics, instilling the value of a great books education in her children. Cizik completed a course at the prestigious Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in Manhattan and took various distance courses as she raised her children, but without a college degree her education felt incomplete. That’s when a tennis friend told her about the Honors Program at the University of Houston.

So after her youngest child began his studies at St. John’s High School, Cizik began studying for her SATs. She applied and was accepted to the newly configured University Honors Program in the late 70s—the program would not become a college until 1993—shortly after the arrival of founding dean Ted Estess. Cizik graduated in 1983, realizing her dream of a bachelor’s degree and a high-quality liberal arts education.

It was Cizik’s non-traditional route to Honors that inspired the idea for a “great books” gala when she was approached by Estess in 1992. Cizik had chaired many galas and charity events, and when asked to participate in a brainstorming session for a benefit showcasing the best of Honors, she knew they would need to do something special. “In those years, gala meant something formal, and there was always ‘entertainment.’” A veteran of The Human Situation, Cizik knew exactly what was special about Honors. “The best entertainment,” Cizik said, “is what happens in Honors classes—Socratic dialogue.”

While the Socratic model is practiced daily by faculty and students in the Honors College, it is not often used in the business world or the Houston philanthropic community. Events in support of education usually feature speeches by leading scholars in their fields followed by polite question-and-answer sessions, not the give-and-take of dialogue. “We wanted to bring together the town and the gown,” Cizik said. Her idea was that members of the Houston community, led by faculty conversationalists, would have the opportunity to engage in an exploration of an academic topic—a “great book,” a controversial political issue, or an intriguing aspect of the faculty member’s research. The format of conversation would simulate the dialogue that takes place between professors and students in Honors College seminars. At the same time, the academics would step outside their comfort zone and into an unfamiliar world with different rules. It was a challenge for both groups because, as Cizik said, “in a sense they were afraid of each other. I thought that meeting each other in a congenial setting would melt some barriers.” Ultimately, the experiment was a success.

Working in collaboration with Estess, event co-chairs Christopher Knapp and Grace Pierce, former director of development Marjie French, first advisory board president Catherine Campbell Brock, and other members of the advisory board, Cizik served as honorary chair for the gala’s first year. Members of the committee worked tirelessly to plan and promote the event—writing letters, calling old friends, and getting the word out to their respective social circles: “I got in touch with Shelby Hodge,” Cizik remembered, “the society writer for the Houston Chronicle. I took her to lunch— in those days you could do that—and I told her about this idea we had. She was fascinated, and she gave us some much-needed publicity.” Clearly impressed by the novelty of a conversation-based benefit, Hodge noted in her article the event’s goal to “involve people in a meaningful way, appealing to their intellect rather than their vanity."

The publicity worked. Donor contributions exceeded that year’s target—$25,000 for a teaching fellowship—and the committee learned a few valuable lessons. For example, to trust in the generosity of the Houston community. Fundraising goals have since become more ambitious, and for The Great Conversation 2012, the Honors College hopes to raise $200,000 to put toward student scholarships.

Another lesson: faculty are not generally good dancers. “Some younger members of the advisory board wanted to have a band and time for dancing after the conversations concluded,” said Estess. “By the end of the second year, we realized that The Great Conversation was not the time for dancing, at least not with your feet.”

They also learned that while ornate floral arrangements are lovely in a ballroom, they do not make ideal centerpieces. “That first year the arrangements were so tall,” Estess said, “they blocked everyone’s vision across the table.” The next year they selected more modest centerpieces, and eventually turned over the role of table decorating to Honors students, who for the past 15 years have made a creative project of designing thematic decorations for each table.

Jane CizikThe early years of The Great Conversation featured a few other surprises as well. “I was amazed to discover that the professors were anxious that first year,” Cizik said, “coming out of their classrooms to talk about what they do to a totally different audience. They thought they were on trial.” But the community and the academy soon embraced one other. “After that first exposure, the faculty realized it wasn’t so bad,” said Cizik. “The conversations were enjoyable.”

One memorable year, Cizik was seated at a table with Paul Chu, a renowned physics professor and researcher in superconductivity at the University of Houston. “I wondered how this difficult topic could be made interesting for my guests, but to my delight and surprise, Dr. Chu turned out to be one of the best conversationalists we’ve ever had. His intent wasn’t to lecture. It was to engage and guide.”

A community of receptive learners, joined together in conversation and guided by a gifted teacher—this has long been the hallmark of an Honors College education. But in 1993, the conversational model was “a new breed of fundraiser,” as Hodge wrote at the time, and the pairing of donors and dialogue attracted its share of attention. In 1994, The Great Conversation was awarded the Outstanding Fund Raising Program Award by the Houston chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives. Judged by the NSFRE committee to be “an innovative and effective example of enlisting financial support from the community,” The Great Conversation joined the ranks of previous winners like the Hermann Hospital Employee Campaign for Life and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Jubilee Gala Ball.

Cizik hopes that the next twenty years of The Great Conversation continue to bring in new conversationalists, new ideas, and new participants. But some things, Cizik said, will never change: “We must never lose the continuity of the name or the intimacy of a small event. And most importantly, we must not lose sight of our mission: to engage the greater Houston community through an evening of sociability and conversation.”