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Saxa Politica: Back to the GUSA future

March 3, 2011


Georgetown University Student Association presidents only occupy their post for one or two years, making it difficult for them to leave a mark on student life or deliver on optimistic campaign promises. The incoming GUSA executive, Mike Meaney (SFS ’12) and Greg Laverriere (COL ’12), would do well to heed the words of their predecessors—eschew flashy plans for those that will leave positive impacts.

As the student body president more than 30 years ago, Michael Thornton (COL ’71) brought student representation onto the student conduct boards and, for a time, the Board of Directors. This marked a revolutionary change from a time when “the traditional Hoya candidate in the coat and tie,” as Thornton called it, oversaw a student government that was little more than a body for organizing social events.

“My candidacy was based on increasing the role of the students in governing the University that was making decisions affecting their lives,” he said.

On the other hand, Thornton’s proposal to replace the Board of Directors with a democratic “University council” composed of student and faculty representatives did not come to fruition. This failure may lie in his advocacy strategy, most notably a student strike he organized in May 1970. Almost immediately after calling the strikes, news of the Kent State shootings raced around the country, bringing in an outside element that transformed students’ strikes into antiwar demonstrations. Thornton’s public support of the outside protestors angered then University President Robert Henle and closed the door on any potential reforms.

This experience shows that a GUSA president can take on the administration, but he must focus on small, achievable goals in changing the makeup of the University. Thornton’s successor, Roger Cochetti (SFS ’72), also pursued student sovereignty, but his model of incorporation had much more staying power than the University council. The organization that Cochetti created, the Corp, survives as a robust part of student life and promotes the independence and initiative both presidents sought to foster.

“I think it’s a good idea to set some priorities or goals and to explicitly take the time to establish one, two, or three things you want to accomplish while you are there,” Cochetti said. “You’ve only got one year—that’s not a very long time—so it’s good to have priorities when you start into it.”

The importance of modest proposals lives on today. Former President Pat Dowd’s (SFS ’09) Summer Fellows program, which provides stipends and housing to students with unpaid summer internships, has doubled in size since its inception. Outgoing President Calen Angert’s (MSB ’11) legacy lies not in his unfulfilled promises of Zipcars and a cubicle reservation system in the library, but with transparency initiatives in the club funding process and in the introduction of programs like the LSAT familiarization course.

Looking back on his term, Angert cautioned against making too many promises.

“Act with integrity,” he said. “You don’t have to cut a million and one deals. There are ways to get people excited and into the spirit of things without guaranteeing them some type of payment.”

Many of Meaney and Laverriere’s proposals are high-flying promises that will require too much thankless GUSA support to perpetuate, from an apartment cleaning service to the housing exchange and student feedback websites. History shows that the biggest successes in student government come when leaders champion initiatives that put regular students at the helm. They would do well to take a page from Ace Factor (COL ‘11) and James Pickens’s (COL ‘11) campaign and promote a community service fund for student-run service projects.

Nonetheless, our future GUSA executive duo is on the right track, having promised to scrutinize the Student Code of Conduct and committed to advocate for students off-campus with DC Students Speak. GUSA presidents must promote ideas that, rather than provide students with an ephemeral goody, empower and inspire initiative and exploration that will continue well beyond their term.

Let John give you a history lesson at jflanagan@georgetownvoice.com



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