Flipping through old Voice archives was enough to give me déjà vu.
“SAC continues freeze of GUSA funds,” March 4, 1999. “Gay activists press demands,” Feb. 13, 1973. “Residents say GU must justify higher enrollment,” Nov. 11, 1999.
Reading through archives, it is increasingly apparent that we’ve been fighting the same battles for decades. Georgetown University Student Association versus Student Activities Commission. Students versus neighbors. Activists versus the administration. University Information Services versus technology.
That’s because institutional memory eludes us. Social studies teachers love that old adage about what we’re doomed to do if we don’t learn our history. But at Georgetown, students can make major progress on an issue only to have the same battles start over from the beginning five years later.
Matt Stoller (COL ’08) is the definition of institutional memory. Now a third year Harvard Law student, Stoller spent his free time last year advising then GUSA senators on club funding reform and schooling Vox Populi commenters on Georgetown history.
In Nov. 2008, he read about a feisty young GUSA senator named Nick Troiano who staged a sit-in at a SAC constitution meeting. He reached out to Troiano and shared his memories about the club funding reform process. With his help, GUSA was able to complete club funding reform efforts he and other senators had started years ago.
But Stoller also became a valuable resource on other issues. Since students are only here for four years, the students who could hold administrators to their promises often graduate before their work is accomplished. Stoller filled senators in on past negotiations, and his memories helped keep administrators honest.
“The administration will just say, ‘Oh we’ll fix that, we’ll look into that,’ and then once these people graduate, it’s nothing,” Stoller said.
For example, Stoller’s GUSA Senate started the weekend Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle service, with the understanding that GUSA would fund a pilot program and afterwards, the University would fund it. But money for the program ran out this spring and the blame fell on GUSA.
Students who don’t know Georgetown history are harsher judges in other situations as well. Those who claim they agree with the many campus protesters’ viewpoints frequently disparage their tactics, from the protesters of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s arrival to the School of Foreign Service to last year’s Plan A campaign. But a look at Georgetown’s history reveals that protests have been one of the most effective avenues to real policy changes. They were essential to the creation of the LGBTQ Center.
This year could be a formative one for Georgetown student life. Administrators’ attempts to appease neighbors through increased party patrols, off-campus residence advisors, and potential off-campus party registration could set a new status quo for off-campus student life. The class of 2015 could have no memory of how things used to be and would be at a negotiating disadvantage.
GUSA plans to revisit the issue of the $1.8 million of Student Activity Fee money currently invested in the endowment. The Finance and Appropriations Committee will need to reassert its claim over the Student Activity Fee, relying on the institutional memory of credibility it has built over the past couple years. Should students again begin to see GUSA as a useless institution, it will lose its opportunity to have a more profound effect on campus life.
Not all alumni can be as involved as Stoller. Fortunately, we now have more tools to preserve a record of what happens. Between Vox Populi blog tags and GUSA’s box.net site, which archives old bills, we have memories at our fingertips—at least dating back to the time Georgetown discovered the Internet.
But archived newspaper articles and former club leaders have always been available to club leaders. More students should work to build up institutional memory while they are still involved with campus life. Student leaders, as they work on important issues now, should also consider how to best communicate their successes and failures to future classes. After all, even after they’ve moved on to more important things, the next generation will likely need to continue their work.