Dec. 7 is D-Day for the Georgetown University Student Association. On Tuesday, students will vote on the GUSA Finance and Appropriation Committee’s pet project: Student Activities Fee Endowment reform, or, in Georgetown’s tradition of ridiculous acronyms, “SAFE Reform.” If the referendum passes, GUSA will slowly raise the yearly the Student Activities Fee from $100 to $150 and stop diverting half the fee to the withering endowment, which was supposed to begin subsidizing the fee by around this year.
The GUSA FinApp Committee has decided that the referendum will need a voter turnout of 2,000 students in order to be considered legitimate—a high watermark, considering that this year’s senatorial election only attracted 1,006 voters. Furthermore, expecting that students will want to end the practice of investing half the fee in the failing endowment but will likely oppose a fee increase, the senators have made the obstinate decision to force students to vote up or down on the package deal. This is an indication that the senators may not have as much support for the plan as they would like. But their philosophy is go big or go home.
“If you divide the referendum question in two … people will vote yes on the first part and no on the second part,” FinApp Committee member Colton Malkerson (COL ’13) said. “We did think about that as a committee … but [voting to only allocate $100] doesn’t meet the true need.”
At its heart, this referendum is not about whether or not to increase club funding. Instead, the results will tell us whether or not students really trust GUSA to manage their money, and—more importantly—whether or not a third of the student body even knows enough about GUSA to voice an opinion. More than any senatorial or presidential election, this referendum is a test of GUSA’s legitimacy.
It’s a test the senators expect to pass. Over the next week, the committee plans to ramp up its campaigning with door-to-door canvassing and increased flyering.
“We’re slowly building the groups who will endorse it,” FinApp Committee Chair Greg Laverriere (COL ‘12) told the other senators at Tuesday’s meeting. “It comes down to the ground game, which we will win.”
But in their fervor, the senators have launched a campaign that has at times been misleading. For example, in town halls, the senators noted Georgetown’s sparse wireless service to illustrate the ways Georgetown is lagging behind. But the increased Student Activities Fee wouldn’t go towards wireless, and to suggest otherwise is deceptive.
Likewise, in their public comments and postings, the senators have failed to dispel the rumors that the SAFE has languished solely because of the economy. This is a lie. The SAFE—established in 2001 and expected to reach $10 million by about this year—is $8.1 million short because the University reneged on its promised $3 million contribution and the accompanying interest. Class after class of GUSA senators forgot about the administration’s promise—and the fund itself—for almost a decade. The recession didn’t deplete the endowment. GUSA mismanaged it.
But Malkerson and Laverriere believe that despite students’ misgivings about GUSA’s past incompetence, the current senate will be able to convince students to support the higher fee and reforms. According to the committee’s report, the advisory boards, which fund clubs at Georgetown, have an estimated $800,000 need. The report also says that compared to peer institutions, Georgetown’s $100 fee is in the bottom 25 percent.
“Once you talk to kids and once you explain it to them, it becomes very clear, very quickly, this is something they should support,” Malkerson said.
To be fair, the FinApp Committee has held a number of town halls about SAFE Reform. A few senators, reporters, advisory board members, and I have been to all of them. But I suspected that outside that insular group, no one has any idea what’s going on.
I talked to a handful of other students to get a sense of what other people are thinking. They were both more aware and less informed than I expected. Some said they had seen GUSA’s posters and didn’t know what they were about. But several were able to describe the main contentions, and a few offered viable counterarguments.
“I’m a major capitalist,” Milan Suri (COL ’11) said in the most strident opposition I heard. He argued that rather than raising the Student Activities Fee for everybody, students should contribute additional fees to their own organizations as needed. “If you want any of those things, you should just pay for them.”
Then I asked if he planned to vote against the referendum.
“Oh, we’re voting on it?” he asked.