The purpose of Controversy N’ Coffee is not aggressive retaliation

Mariana Oliver and Eliana Wilk

Dear Mr. Christofanelli,

In light of your open letter to Professor Peter Benson (Oct. 2), we feel that it is necessary to state the position of Controversy n’ Coffee, as a student group dedicated to fostering dialogue in the Wash. U. community.

The purpose of Controversy n’ Coffee is to bring students, faculty and community leaders together to discuss pressing social and political issues. We select panelists with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints in order to expose students to multiple perspectives and opinions on these critical issues. Our panelists graciously make time to participate in our events and interact with students at a level that is often not possible in the classroom, and each contributes valid opinions and a vast amount of knowledge from his or her area of expertise.

Students are, of course, invited and encouraged to express their own opinions; the controversial component of our events effectively facilitates meaningful discussion. The issue at hand is not the voicing of a contradictory opinion, but rather the manner in which it was done. We strive to create a respectful environment conducive to intellectual conversation rather than offensive retaliation against conflicting viewpoints. The latter seems to show a lack of concern for the respectful protocol we expect when dissenting opinions are voiced.

Our event last Thursday, which focused on the smoking ban at Wash. U., raised various important points regarding the ethics of an institution dictating an individual’s right to smoke on campus. This, being one of the event’s main points of controversy, generated a spirited discussion that persisted beyond the event itself and continued for another hour with students and panelists expressing their views in a more informal setting. We are always pleased to see our audience leave our events stimulated to debate these issues and develop their own opinions.

One of the main topics discussed after the event was precisely the problem with the conception of Washington University as a parent to its students. Indeed, Washington University provides, first and foremost, the service of education; and as adults, students should in no way expect the University to “raise us, care for us, love us, comfort us, protect us and support us in endeavors.” It would be a true challenge to find an administrator or faculty member who believes in the University’s duty to serve the role of a parent. In the discussion that followed the event, it was expressed that—just like any law-enforcing institution—a university can and should be able to enforce policies, particularly when they are consistent with the broader policy changes that are occurring not only on a national but also international level. The principal view that was expressed in opposition to this claim did not focus on the simple question of whether the University is supposed to act like a parent. Rather, it was focused on the rights of mature adults to make individual decisions and to have input on important policies that will affect campus life.

We hope that our response has been thorough and that it is understood that the point of our events is to stimulate thoughtful conversation. As anyone who has attended our events and stayed for the discussions that follow will attest, the way that conversation turns into anything fruitful or productive is through dialogue rather than aggressive retaliation.