Ben Abram, architect for intellectual gatherings

Writer: 
April 1, 2007

Ben Abram, architect for intellectual gatherings

Ben Abram

Les Todd

It’s a long story, actually, how Ben Abram came to invite Winston-Salem rapper Se7en to dine at the Washington Duke Inn last fall and to speak to students in Alspaugh, the freshman dorm where he was a residential adviser.

Abram was enrolled in adjunct assistant professor of music Robi Roberts’ rap and hip-hop appreciation class. Through that class, he met DJ Chela, a local club DJ, who for a time hosted a weekly radio show on WXDU, the campus radio station. One night, Abram was hanging out with her in the studio, and Se7en came on the show to talk about black empowerment issues. “They were going on the air, spinning rhymes about what they were passionate about,” Abram recalls. He was intrigued. Se7en invited Abram to a show he was attending in Durham, and, in return, Abram invited Se7en to come and speak to his students in Alspaugh.

It’s a long story, but it’s really not all that uncommon for Abram. In his four years at Duke, the senior, recently named Young Trustee, has gained a reputation as someone who makes connections with people. “Ben’s good at keeping up with people and finding out what they’re about more so than anyone I’ve ever met,” says junior Lee Pearson, whom Abram met when both were East Campus residential advisers last year.

His task became easier when Duke instituted a program during his junior year called “Duke Conversations” to encourage students to invite interesting figures—activists, teachers, politicians, athletes, musicians like Se7en—to campus to chat intimately over a meal or in a small group setting. The university agrees to foot the bill for travel and expenses on the condition that the speaker is not paid an honorarium.

Abram took the idea and ran with it, initially using the program to supplement the programming funds he received from residence life to host events in Alspaugh. When he moved off campus this year, he began hosting dinners in his off-campus house, often shuttling the speakers off afterwards to address a freshman dorm or campus organization.

“People say Duke lacks intellectual engagement,” Abram says. “If that’s true, then it’s only because of not having appropriate venues, not because students aren’t intellectually engaged.”

During the fall semester, a dozen or more invited guests crowded around the civil and environmental engineering and public-policy studies double-major’s table to dine and converse with speakers ranging from David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio, to Sonal Shah A.M. ’93, vice president of Goldman, Sachs & Co., to Jeff Smith, founder of political-activism organization the Oregon Bus Project.

Pearson, a frequent attendee, says that the presentations and discussions brought together people whose social and intellectual paths might not otherwise cross. “Most of the time, I didn’t know half the people in the room, and that was true for everyone. Ben just knows so many people in different circles, in different schools and departments.”

Abram admits that often the group slants left, but that’s not for lack of trying. He invited noted campus conservative Stephen Miller, a senior, to one event, and Miller ultimately attended, but not before calling back to ask, “Is this really just a dinner invitation, or are you setting me up for something?”

Politics don’t get in the way of good discussion, either. Of speaker Paul Teller ’93, deputy director of the House Republican Study Committee, Abram says, “Yes, he’s a Republican. Yes, he’s really far right. But when it came to fiscal policy and government intervention and the way he saw the government shaped right now, we had a lot of agreement in the room.”

At times, Abram’s networking instincts don’t go as expected. Abram tells a funny story about a time he introduced journalist Fiona Morgan, whom he’d booked for a conversation, to her own husband, who works as a researcher for Abram’s academic adviser, public-policy professor Joel Fleishman, at a cocktail party. You win some, you lose some.

“College is about bridging perspectives, making connections. You’ve got to do that for yourself.” With his dinners, Abram is once again doing just that.

“I wanted to engage with my friends, but also have them engage with each other. This was sort of the ‘dot, dot, dot’ to get the conversation going.”