Fixing what’s broken

March 23, 2006

The GUSA office is undergoing some physical remodeling, Twister Murchison (SFS ‘08) explained. For the recently sworn-in president of the students’ representative body, there could not be a more apt metaphor for what the organization needs: remodeling. Two controversial elections in three years serve as proof enough of that.

But the electoral problems are, for all intents and purposes, mere window dressing to a roomful of issues. It’s really about a web site that has not updated its news section since last November. It’s about an Assembly that is not quite sure what its role is. It’s about dealing with a behemoth university bureaucracy that is essentially the gatekeeper of any real change. And it is about winning over a student body that sees only controversies, stagnation and an organization that spends a good deal of time fixing itself.

“A somewhat weak organization has been made even weaker by recent events,” Murchison said, doubtlessly summing up the feelings of many on campus. Some must wonder if it has to be that way. What are the roadblocks that make GUSA a “weak” organization? What are the changes that could make it a strong one? And upon whom does the onus ultimately fall?

We the Undergraduate Students

Understanding GUSA is impossible without knowing its role on campus. After all, one of the main functions of student government at many universities—divvying up funds among the various student groups—was devolved to the semi-autonomous Student Activities Commission in 1991. What purpose is left for the students’ representative body?

According to the preamble to the current GUSA constitution, ratified in 1990, “Students have a right to play a clearly defined and significant role in the formation and application of institutional policy affecting both academic and student affairs. A democratic government is the best means by which this role may be played.”

In other words, GUSA is an advocacy committee. It is the vanguard of student interests, representing the collective wishes of the student body to the University administration. GUSA elections, are the process of choosing the students best suited to do so.

GUSA members are generally cognizant of this role. “Something that many students know about and many don’t is the fact that GUSA essentially is a lobbying organization,” Treasurer Eden Schiffman (COL ‘08) said. “When we work with the administration, they hold all the cards; we try to convince them to do what is best for students.”

To this end, GUSA is divided into two branches: the Executive and the Assembly. In theory, the two work together as an institution to advocate for their constituents, the students. In practice, there is little institution to speak of: almost all progress comes from individual ambition.

Full of Sound and Fury

The GUSA Assembly, composed of four members from each class, meets faithfully every Tuesday evening in Healy 106. There, the members debate and vote on proposed resolutions that address many facets of student life. These resolutions, once passed, often go essentially nowhere and affect essentially no one.

“De facto, the only legislative power the Assembly has pertains to its ability to change things within the structure of GUSA, such as the bylaws,” former GUSA Chief of Staff Drew Rau (COL ‘06) wrote in an e-mail. “It is not effectively able to legislate any binding action on any part of the Georgetown community or even on the GUSA president.”

This does not mean, however, that Assembly members can never accomplish anything. “The most effective use of Assembly power is executive in nature,” Rau said. “Assembly members, because of their positions, are able to work with University administrators on a personal level to create needed changes.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that the original framers of the constitution intended the Assembly to become part of the executive bureaucracy. In fact, they tend to say the exact opposite.

“The Assembly was such a significant force back when I was there,” former Assembly Chair and GUSA President Paul Pomeroy (MSB ‘92), who sat on the eight-person committee that drafted the current constitution, wrote in an e-mail. “From a student government standpoint, the Assembly often drove more initiatives than the executive branch. I remember that being chair of the Assembly was just as important (and just as active) as being president.”

Former GUSA Executive Secretary Tim Goodman (SFS ‘92), another drafter of the constitution, said he believes the Assembly is no longer effectively using the scant power it still has. He used the current election flap, in which the Assembly reversed its own decision not to certify the results of the contested executive election between Murchison and Khalil Hibri (SFS ‘07), as an example.

“It appeared that the way the Assembly was convinced [to certify the results] was that the bylaw [concerning election certification] said ‘shall,’” Goodman said. The bylaw in question is number 19.07, which states, in part: “The Assembly shall certify the election results by majority vote.”

“When you look at the constitution, it’s clear,” Goodman said, upset at the Assembly’s making itself a rubber stamp. “They made this decision based on one bylaw read out of context. Why were people not challenging this interpretation of the document?”

Know thy Reps

While this maneuver may have hurt the Assembly, it has taken steps to strengthen itself over the past year. Current Assembly Chair Ed Duffy (SFS ‘07) reorganized the Assembly into committees, a structure that had existed in Goodman and Pomeroy’s time, but had since been lost. The impetus for the change was the desire to take advantage of specialized knowledge and to allow Assembly members passionate about a particular issue to pursue it more thoroughly.

Yet the Assembly remains a small organization, with 16 members representing the 6,719 undergraduate students enrolled during the 2005-06 school year. That can lead to a great deal of anonymity for representatives, who, in turn, may not respond to student desires.

One possible solution, which has the backing of some GUSA officials, is the creation of a principal-agent relationship in GUSA representation: making each Assembly member responsible to a certain set of constituents, much in the way representatives are elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Harvard University and Marquette University are two schools that use such a system, and they offer two possibilities for how it can operate. At Harvard, the system is residence-based: each of the 13 undergraduate “houses” elects three representatives, Ryan Peterson, chair of Harvard’s Student Affairs Committee, said. Marquette, meanwhile, uses a hybrid system, with members of each academic school as well as each residence selecting representatives. Representation is allocated by the size of the schools/residences, Marquette Student President Alex Hermanny said. Either way, students know exactly whose ear to chew if they have a proposal for the student government.

Murchison, for one, considers a shift to geographical representation a viable option. “I think we’re looking at a lot of different options for how to best improve the current system, but I think the idea of geographical representation on a legislative body is fantastic,” he said.

Finding the Battlefront

For some, like Rau, such reforms are not enough.

“I would like to see a completely new constitution,” he said. “The current constitution is based on the U.S. system, and, sadly, while the U.S. system works well for U.S. society, it doesn’t apply as cleanly to Georgetown society.”

Others, like Goodman, find such a measure simply unnecessary.

“What we did [in writing the constitution] is made the core structure of GUSA very short, with broad sweeps of power,” he said. “The document is only four pages for a reason—everything else is a bylaw and can be amended easily. It is very amenable to change.”

Ultimately, Goodman claims that it is not the institutional structure of GUSA that matters, but the simple existence of an institution that allows elected students to do what they were elected to do—advocate for student interests. The GUSA he and Pomeroy knew was not one of unwieldy election bylaws and litigiousness, they say, but of impassioned debate and compromise.

“I think back when I was involved with GUSA we all took our responsibility to serve the student body seriously, but we didn’t take the politics of GUSA too seriously,” Pomeroy wrote. “I remember being in Assembly meetings where two sides would fight it out with every ounce of energy we had, and then walk to the Tombs to continue the discussion over a beer, work out some kind of deal and then bury the hatchet.”

“Back in the day, when we had political disputes, we slugged it out,” Goodman said. “That’s the political process. You don’t bring quasi-lawsuits, and I say that as a lawyer.”

Perhaps Goodman’s most important point, though, is that when GUSA is running optimally, its focus is outward, not inward. “[GUSA need not] be so concerned with the structural parts—they’re all there. It doesn’t need so much focus on institutional reform,” he said.

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

What GUSA should be focusing on, Goodman said, is the mission it is charged with—promoting change to improve student life on campus. In his day, he said, that involved breathing life into the Leavey Center (which he described as an “airport terminal” before the massive changes that have occurred in the past 15 years), advocating for need-blind admissions and financial aid, dealing with the condom debate and trying to bring better food to campus.

Today, that mission has involved trying to fix the housing policy, creating a “Supper with the Jesuits” program for freshmen, organizing the Hurricane Katrina relief effort and trying to bring better food to campus—in the form of the renovated Hoya Court and the newly vacant Darnall cafeteria space.

Yet for most students, GUSA’s successes are overshadowed by the very visible signs of organizational ineptitude that plague the body.

“We’re among the most maligned people on campus,” Schiffman said. “But we achieve many successes people don’t know about.”

“Don’t know about” is the operative phrase—GUSA is in a state that can practically be called “communication breakdown.” Two years ago, under the Hampton/Torres administration, GUSA made multiple attempts to communicate what was going on inside the organization to students, including e-mail press releases and a newsletter called Pawprint. It appears the group has regressed on this front over the past year.

“Our progress and our efforts need to be communicated in full to the student body and not just through ed pages of papers,” Murchison said. He went on to list a number of ways in which GUSA intends to increase communication, including town hall meetings, a table in Red Square severals days a week and an updated web site. The current site has not listed a new Assembly resolution since the spring of 2005.

Keeping students informed is only half of the battle, however. Listening to student concerns is equally important. Gabe Warshall (SFS ‘08), a barista at Uncommon Grounds, lamented GUSA’s apparent unresponsiveness.

“They spend their money on things like a feature-length film,” she said. “They’re spending on something I don’t really care about.”

Students may not be as shut out of GUSA as they think, however. The GUSA constitution contains provisions allowing any member of the student body to bring a resolution before the GUSA Assembly with a petition of only 10 students, and allows for students to bring referendums before the entire student body in coordination with the Election Commissioner.

How the Bikes Were Saved

Back in the early 1990s, the University developed a plan to severely limit where students could ride their bikes on campus. GUSA responded.

“We organized a big rally on Copley Lawn that we cheesily dubbed ‘Bike Aid,’” Pomeroy said. The event, conducted in a festival-like atmosphere, featured bike vendors, safety demonstrations, raffles, prizes and a GUSA-backed petition. It drew campus-wide support, Pomeroy said, as students and their bikes filled the lawn on Saturday morning.

“It worked,” he said bluntly. This arousing of student interest to further change, he claimed, is a glimpse of how GUSA best operates.

Students appear to become frustrated when it appears that this is not happening, The effect of controversies like the recent election one on student perception can be terrible.

“It [GUSA] is useless,” Warshall said, echoing the widespread sense of malaise on campus. “They have a poorly written constitution, and no one can agree on anything.”

GUSA members are also aware of other roadblocks to success.

“Much of the criticism towards GUSA—particularly that it doesn’t do anything—is largely because it takes a long time to accomplish anything that requires university approval,” Duffy said.

Schiffman brought up different concerns. “GUSA has a limited amount of time and money,” he said. “We are not able to sponsor every event we want to sponsor, not able to work on absolutely every issue.”

Pomeroy was philosophical about the issue. “I think GUSA always has—and always will, to a certain extent—struggle for legitimacy,” he said. “And that’s okay, because it should motivate those people who are involved with the organization to try harder to prove that the organization serves an important role on campus.”

That role, it seems, is not to overshadow any other student organizations, but to work with them and the students at large to achieve change.

“The ultimate goal of GUSA is to be a tireless advocate for the student body on issues that affect the Georgetown community. And this has to be done with equal doses of passion and humility. This is how legitimacy is gained,” Pomeroy said.

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