Saxa Politica: A GUSA-shaped activism hole

February 17, 2011

Student government at Georgetown was once a forum for social change; now the extent of its activism is to reorganize how it doles out money to clubs. Although the Georgetown University Student Association’s constitution gives it the responsibility to “secure the protection of student rights, interests, and free expression,” recently, independent student groups have been the most active defenders of students’ rights, such as in the case of the D.C. City Council’s revised noise law.

GUSA Speaker Adam Mortillaro (COL ‘12) informed the press via email that GUSA would oppose the new noise law and engage student associations across the city on Feb. 6. However, by that time, students from five D.C. universities were already contributing to the blog of DC Students Speak, a group founded by Michael Trummel (COL ’10) in 2009 with a $1,000 Corp Reimagine grant. By breaking through separate universities’ “bubbles,” DC Students Speak is giving a voice to largely ignored constituency of students who make up almost a sixth of the District’s population.

But lethargy is standard operating procedure for student government groups at Georgetown. In 1996, when neighbors pushed for a zoning overlay that would limit the number of unrelated occupants in a house to three, it was a group called Campaign Georgetown that registered more than 1,000 students as D.C. voters to elect two student commissioners to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to oppose the legislation.

However, it was not always the case that student activism was divorced from student government. On May 6, 1970, Georgetown University student president Mike Thornton called for a student strike to oppose the Vietnam War and demand a student voice on the University’s Board of Directors.  He told the Voice that the move would signal, “an end to student prostration before arbitrary faculty and administrative authority.”

In 1972, Student Government President Roger Cochetti spearheaded the effort to found The Corp after the University failed to prosecute MPD for discharging tear gas on anti-Vietnam protestors that sought refuge during a May 1971 march on the Capitol. Cochetti and the other members of the student government wanted to provide students with independence from the University. The Student Government president would act as Corp CEO for the first years of its existence; Corp history is intimately tied to that of Georgetown’s one-time activist student government.

To be fair, much of this earlier zeal was tied up in opposition to the Vietnam War, and the student government received significant support from ancillary groups in its activist efforts. After the war ended, this coalition eroded, leading to a 1976 Voice cover story titled “Activism Burned Out Quickly but Brightly.” While GUSA has similar powers over the allocation of club funding as the student government in the 1970s, it has to deal with a much larger student body. Georgetown’s total enrollment was well under the 7,000 undergraduates it enrolls now.

In the meantime, DC Students Speak is doing an excellent job of advocating for students. They have built a citywide community of student leaders online and are working on encouraging initiatives on the ground at Georgetown, from registering D.C. voters to holding D.C. Council election forums and presenting student petitions to the ANC. GUSA should support these endeavors through GUSA Fund money and through University-wide broadcasts informing the study body of DC Students Speak’s efforts.

Unfortunately, ad hoc student groups such as DC Students Speak and Campaign Georgetown don’t have the institutional staying power of student governments. In the future, then, GUSA must be a stronger advocate for its own students and build a working relationship with student governments across the city to provide a long-lasting coalition to represent the student voice.

Give John something to protest at

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James Pickens

More student advocacy from GUSA would be great! Why not create a Student Advocacy Office? That sounds like exactly what GUSA needs.

Check out our idea for one at

Oh, and please vote for me.