Saxa Politica: Keep $3.4 million SAFE

April 7, 2011

With $3.4 million of student money weighing on their minds, it’s hard to envy the members of the Student Activities Fee Endowment commission.  On Tuesday, the commission heard the biggest proposals yet: placing solar panels on University-owned townhouses, creating a fund for student social justice activities, and reviving the pub in Healy basement.

It might be temping for commission members to latch onto one idea in order to leave a discernable legacy, but none of the plans are perfect. The commission should therefore hedge its bets in order to make as meaningful an impact as is possible on future student life.

Georgetown Energy requested $163,399 to place solar panels on 43 University-owned townhouses. As per their proposal, students living in townhouses would continue to pay the standard kilowatt-hour rate as if they were still dependent on the grid, but the University would reimburse the student government for the full savings.

This proposal has the advantage of actually making money—but, at the cost of townhouse residents, who would essentially subsidize the student activities fee. Also, given the potential savings, the University might be willing to install the solar panels without GUSA money.

Another proposal took a bend towards social justice. Clare Gustafson (SFS ’13) and Nick Troiano (COL ’12) asked for $1.5 million to endow the Georgetown University Social Innovation and Public Service Fund, which would give grants to students to start a social enterprise or community service trip, or to pursue a career in public service.

The pair modeled the fund after President Obama’s Social Innovation Fund. Their mentors include Marta Urquilla of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and Freedom Corps Founder John Bridgeland.

“I don’t think we can underestimate how unique of an idea this will be,” Gustafson said.

One of the commissioners deftly pointed out that, in supporting this proposal, the commission would be spending down a failed endowment by placing money in a fund of similar design. However, Gustafson’s point is also well taken. The excitement this proposal has generated among student community service leaders and government officials and its singular purpose give it a vitality that SAFE never had.

Then, of course, there is the most well known (and most expensive) proposal, the revival of Healy Pub. The pub would reclaim the whole of Healy basement as a student space, displacing the financial aid, student employment, and employee benefits offices. Healy Pub, as the proposal claims, would be a place for students to meet, socialize, and study.

But, it would presumably cost more than $3.4 million to turn the offices into a working restaurant, bar, and study space. Supporters contend that already-strong alumni support will put the plan over the edge.

The idea of reviving student space in Healy is laudable. It would be great if Georgetown’s most iconic building were the center of student life. When I ran for the commission, I was a strong proponent of using the money for capital improvements to provide student space. I also appreciate spokesman Chris Pigott’s (COL ’12) point that creating a discernable center for student life would attract alumni support.

Then again, only 400 students can fit in the Healy basement at once. This will hardly make a dent in the marauding hoards of drunken undergrads that the neighbors object to, especially if the pub is serious about enforcing drinking laws. Even if it were to have a greater impact, the pub’s proponents overestimate the reasonableness of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which approves all liquor licenses.

Also, even though the group met with Todd Olson, University vice president for student affairs, they have not received a definitive answer as to whether the University would be willing to allow a bar in Healy or foot the bill for moving its administrative offices. Pigott seems to think the new Science Center will open up space for these offices, but the academic departments have indicated they plan to continue using Reiss. Also, let’s not forget that the administration killed Healy Pub once—it can do it again.

In addition, the proposal offers promises of student space familiar to students who look forward to the student center in New South. Even if the pub could co-exist with the student center, as Pigott argued, it’s not responsible to commit the whole endowment to an uncertain proposal that may not be necessary.

Healy Pub and SIPS hold a lot of promise for raising the profile of Georgetown and improving student life. At the same time, the commission should be cautioned against placing all of its eggs in one basket. It should be the business of the commission to spread the benefits of funding as widely as possible while still making impactful allocations.

See how much money John costs at

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So you are saying that the commission should dilute the power of $3.4 million, and squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something big, in order to take on a bunch of lesser projects? You really are a visionary, John.