“The University rolled us”: How the administration got what it wanted out of SAFE reform

January 26, 2012

In early April 2011, the student spearheading the broad “Bring Back Healy Pub” movement had his first meeting with any member of the administration. Chris Pigott (COL ’12), then a GUSA Senator, met with Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson to propose the use of student money to revive the storied bar, which saw its heyday during the 1970s and ‘80s.

He had not yet made the pitch to the GUSA Endowment Commission, which had been established earlier that semester to vet proposals vying for a portion of the newly available $3.4 million Student Activity Fee Endowment.

However, Pigott got the impression that Olson had already caught wind of the Healy Pub movement, which included both students and alumni.

“When I went in to talk to him for the first time, he said, ‘Before we start talking about this, I just wanted to remind you of our progress on the New South Student Center,’” he said, referring to the project the University has been actively fundraising for over the past year.

Pigott said Olson pulled out a decade-old feasibility study for the New South Student Center, pointed to it and said, “Here’s where we could put student space like a pub.”

“I’m sure Dr. Olson has a good political mind,” Pigott reflected.


The idea to revive Healy Pub originated in a Voice column by Kara Brandeisky (COL ’13), where she advocated for student space in Healy basement. The movement then attracted a broad base of supporters, from alumni like Matt Stoller (COL ‘08), who organized the movement, to the cadre of students who pursued the idea with the administration.

“Kara came up with the idea in an op-ed,” Pigott said. “Matt Stoller read that ed and thought it was a good idea, and secretly put together this proposal…and started calling people.”

The column came on the heels of the massive discovery of the Student Activity Fee Endowment. GUSA had launched a campaign to reform the Student Activity Fee system, reclaim control of the $3.4 million endowment, and use the funds for major student projects. The Endowment Commission was established to allocate this large sum of student money.

According to Olson, the University began planning the New South Student Center in the early 2000s, when Leo O’Donovan dining hall replaced the New South and Darnall cafeterias. At that point, the University began planning how it would repurpose the space.

Visions for student space in New South played prominently in the 2000 Report on Student Life, produced by a working group established by the University to assess student opinion on student space and fundraising, among other things.

Another student space working group met between 2008 and 2010. “The reason that [the working group] was allowed to happen was that students had been complaining about student space since 1999, but people like Dr. Olson knew they had something like New South coming down the pike,” Adam Talbot (COL ’12), then a GUSA Senator and current GUSA Senate Speaker, said. “So it was at least a momentary convergence of students [wanting] something and the University [having] a trial balloon they can float and see if they can make it work.”

The group was receptive. The Report on Student Space, released in April 2010, lauded the New South Student Center as “the best solution to address a range of student activities problems because it will provide a center for student life.”

One of the participants was Taylor Price (MSB ’10), who would later submit the New South Student Center proposal to the Endowment Commission.

According to Olson, although New South was the topic of much conversation between students and administrators, Price was instrumental in acting on the need for student space on campus. “Taylor was the one who carried that idea forward and built momentum for it,” Olson said. “But it’s not like out of nowhere he said, ‘Let’s give some SAFE money to New South.’”

Price considers the New South Student Center a permanent solution to Georgetown’s student space shortage. “What better project for students to support?” he said.

When the Endowment Commission made its final decision on the allocation of the endowment funds, it recommended that almost the entire sum go to the proposed Healy Pub Project. In the event that the pub failed to garner the administration’s approval, the commission would recommend splitting the endowment among several projects, including the New South Student Center.

In fall of 2010, GUSA began holding town halls about its plans to reform the Student Activity Fee Endowment. According to Talbot, the issue was part of a larger effort to reform the entire student activities funding system.

“OK, we know in the past we haven’t gotten 100 percent from the administration, [so we asked], ‘what can we do to make it work,’ since we’re only going to be here for four years,” he said.

Talbot said that after reforming the funding boards, including the Student Activities Commission, GUSA traced these issues to a simple lack of funds. Then, GUSA looked to the Student Activity Fee.

Before this reform, said Malkerson, GUSA only recently began to consider addressing the Endowment. “GUSA probably dropped the ball on funding issues,” he said. “We didn’t really keep track of the fee. We weren’t terribly focused on the endowment.”

When the student activity fee was first approved by referendum in 2001, half of every year’s collected fee was designated for immediate use, while half was used to establish the Student Activity Fee Endowment, composed of shares purchased from the University’s larger endowment.

The plan was for SAFE to reach $10 million, at which point the interest generated would replace the annual activity fee altogether. However, the endowment never reached this goal, and it certainly never became self-sustaining. When GUSA began its major push for SAFE Reform, the endowment sat at $3.5 million dollars.

Malkerson cites a number of issues that stifled the endowment’s growth, one being that the administration never made good on a deal it struck with GUSA in 2001. According to Hoya archives from the time, GUSA asked the University to contribute $3 million to SAFE once the larger University endowment, then called the Third Century Capital Campaign, reached $1 billion.

However, this promise did not feature prominently in early discussions of a student activity fee. Jacques Arsenault (COL ’01, GRD ’07), who served as GUSA Vice-President in the spring of 2001 when the original activity fee referendum passed, said the novelty of establishing such a fee overshadowed the details concerning the endowment.

“I think there was definitely one argument made that once the endowment got large enough, it could replace the student activity fee,” he said. However, he added that he “[doesn’t] remember the endowment being talked about except among GUSA wonky types.”

The endowment did cap $1 billion in 2008, but only for a brief time before being crippled by the economic collapse.

“The bottom line is, they never gave us the $3 million,” Malkerson said. “Frankly, we didn’t get anything in paper, so it was hard to hold them to that promise.”

Malkerson said members of GUSA broached the subject with Student Affairs administrators at the beginning of SAFE Reform. “If you talk to Todd Olson and some of the people who have been here for a while, they say, ‘Yeah that was discussed, but…ehhh,’” he said. “They sort of weasel out of it.”

This lack of accountability meant that, ten years later, no one in GUSA was aware of the state of the endowment. Talbot, then serving his first term as speaker, said that “one of the first things we discovered … was that the University was skimming the interest off the endowment.”

This is standard operating procedure for such an endowment, according to Matt Greaves, Manager of Capital and Finance Budgets at Georgetown. Because the Student Activity Fee Endowment is comprised of purchased stocks, it generates income on an annual basis. Some of this income is siphoned into a fund, available for expenditures. Payments into this fund are predetermined by a formula—not strictly interest—established “at the board level.”

“[The payment fund] is earmarked for the purpose of that endowment,” Greaves said. “The student activity fee was intended to be used for students, and it’s available for use for that purpose.”

However, members of GUSA were wholly unaware of this fund’s existence. “I don’t know if they actively hid it from us,” Malkerson said. “I think it’s an example of how GUSA previously had not done the best bookkeeping, and also how the University wasn’t actively forthcoming.”

In 2009, when the fund was discovered, the student activity fee portion of the endowment consisted of 6,067.83 shares, or $1,840,129.09. The endowment’s growth depended on the compound interest it generated, but it did not benefit from the money extracted into the external payment fund.

After discovering the fund, GUSA passed the Bill on Student Endowment Interest, which allowed GUSA to take control of the money in the fund. Talbot said that when members of GUSA approached the administration about the fund, “the response we got at the time was, ‘You never told us you wanted to be compounding your own interest.’… I thought that was sort of implicit in creating an endowment.”


The summer after Pigott’s first meeting with Olson, the Healy Pub working group continued to meet with Olson and other Student Affairs administrators in attempt to solidify a vision for the pub that both parties could endorse.

Over the course of several months, the Healy Pub advocates met with Olson 15 times. According to Malkerson, who attended many of the meetings, the conversation centered around “changes we could make to make [the proposal] more palatable.”

“I think we were probably sent in circles occasionally by the University,” Malkerson said.

One of the administration’s concerns was that Healy basement currently houses the Human Resources and Financial Aid offices. According to Pigott, the working group proposed other locations across campus where the offices could move. Furthermore, the working group volunteered to fund the move with endowment money.

Administrators consistently expressed concern that Healy Pub would be a raucous hub of student nightlife right in the middle of Dahlgren Quad. “Initially, when the proposal first came out, I think they saw it as Rhino,” Malkerson said, referring to a popular M Street bar. “I don’t think they ever changed their thinking about what the proposal was.”

According to Malkerson, the concept of Healy Pub evolved from a 24-hour bar setting to a student lounge that becomes a bar on Friday and Saturday nights. “Although efforts were made to scale back, the University was never going to go along with alcohol being served off of Dahlgren Quad.”

However, the University has entertained plans for a bar in the student center—beneath the New South freshman dorm. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t strike all of us as cognitive dissonance,” Talbot said.

What distinguishes Healy Pub from the bar guaranteed to be in the New South Student Center is the University’s vision of Dahlgren Quad as an emblem of the University as a whole.  “The best excuse I heard was from DeGioia,” Talbot said. “That a pub doesn’t comport with a vision of Dahlgren as a spiritual and academic center.”

As Olson put it, “It is the administration building to the campus, it’s a place where we have a lot of formal events. It needs to serve a lot of different purposes for a lot of people at the University.”

Olson confirmed that the University plans to remodel Dahlgren Quad and its surrounding buildings sometime in the future. Although the project does not have a timeline and has not entered the fundraising phase, he assured that “we have listened to and take seriously the student interest in having student space in Healy Hall,” adding that he is “not confident if it will be in the basement or where it will be.”

Despite the administration’s conclusive reason for rejecting Healy Pub, the Healy Pub working group was confronted with a variety of justifications—from University office space to future plans to remodel Dahlgren Quad— throughout the negotiations. “The University put up a lot of roadblocks,” Talbot said.

When asked why the administration proposed such varying reasons why Healy Pub was infeasible, Olson declined to answer further questions.

“It was a cat and mouse game the whole time,” said Pigott. “We knew where the University was. We tried to gather political support in and outside the University and leverage that any way we could.”

During that same summer, Olson was also meeting with the working group for the New South Student Center. According to Price, who was one of the group’s leaders, the University facilitated conversations between the working group and the student center’s main architects, ensuring that the student-funded enhancements to the project would not clash with the overall design.

“They were there to facilitate the conversation, but not drive it,” he said.

Malkerson—as well as other members of GUSA—recognize a difference in the University’s negotiations with every proposal besides Healy Pub. “Dr. Olson has made a good-faith effort in helping implement all other proposals that are not Healy Pub,” Malkerson said. “Obviously, New South, having students contribute money to that was a bonus for the University.”

The Endowment Commission’s other recommendations were $250,000 for Georgetown Energy, $1,250,000 for Social Innovation and Public Service fund, and $2,048,412 for the New South Student Center.

In terms of negotiating, the University and the Healy Pub working group were by no means an even match. “Often times we were at the mercy of the University, because we don’t actually have any authority,” Malkerson said.

Olson disagrees with this characterization. “We worked thoughtfully and collaboratively with students,” he said. Referring to letters of intent for the allocation of the SAFE funds, Olson added, “they are a good-faith commitment that we want to work together on.”

Talbot shares Malkerson’s view. “It’s a pretty simple equation: the University owns the space, and they’re not willing to rent, lease, or sell it, we can’t eminent domain it.”

After months of negotiations, in September, DeGioia effectively declared the Healy Pub proposal dead. “We’ll try to accommodate that [need for flexibility] but I think it’d a bridge too far to get to the Healy Pub,” he said in an interview with campus media.

“I think the University did roll us on that,” Malkerson said, reflecting on the discussion process.


Leading up to the final SAFE referendum, which is running from January 24-26, the University and members of GUSA, including Malkerson and GUSA President and Vice-President Mike Meaney (SFS ’12) and Greg Laverriere  (COL ’12), signed a letter of agreement, which indicates the stipulations for allocating student funds to each project. In the case of the New South Student Center, one of those stipulations is the inclusion of a bar, under some sort of student management or operation. However, SAFE funds will not be used to fund the pub.

“The University often doesn’t take student interest seriously, and I think they frequently take for granted students,” said Malkerson. “I think this was an example where students were rallied behind an idea, really supported it. And the University didn’t respond to that.”

However, Malkerson also said he was pleased with the plans for New South. “I think if the compromise is followed through on, it will be very good,” he said. “But again, I think the University often says one thing and does another, so it will be very important that we hold them to their commitment.”

To Pigott, the presence of a pub in New South Center satisfies the group’s goal of a late night social space that will “serve alcohol and be a late night space that keeps students on campus.” As for student space in Healy, he said the administration indicated that it would make an effort to include student space in their remodel. Though this is not iterated in the letter of agreement, Olson confirmed that the University is not opposed to student space in Healy.

For those members of GUSA who have been closely tied to the years-long SAFE Reform process, these agreement letters signify a change in the way GUSA collaborates with the administration. “This is essentially the way you have to go about doing things with the University,” said Malkerson. “You have to get things in writing.”

Although they are not legally binding, Talbot sees the letters as good faith agreements, supported by the reputational consequences the University would face if it reneged on its word.

When asked if these letters of intent represent a lesson learned from SAFE Reform, he smiled.  “That would be an interesting way to look at it.”

Editor’s note: This post was changed to correct errors. The original post incorrectly reported the final SAFE referendum as taking place on Jan. 23-25 and that the Endowment Commission recommended that the entire endowment be allocated to Healy Pub. The Voice regrets these errors. A quote by Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson has been updated. The quote now reads, “But it’s not like out of nowhere he said, ‘Let’s give some SAFE money to New South.'”

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Couple of quick correx: eminent domain, cognitive dissonance

But mostly, awesome piece of student journalism.


SAFE Referendum is running from Jan 24-26, not Jan 23-25

B. Power

The Endowment Commission was not in favor of giving the “entire sum” to Healy Pub, but recommended that a small portion of the money should also fund Georgetown Energy’s proposal.

It was not until late this fall that members of the GUSA Senate recommended allocating $250,000 for Georgetown Energy, $1,250,000 for the SIPS Fund, and $2,048,412 for the New South Student Center.


Interesting, informative and well written – one of the best pieces I’ve seen in any of our campus publications. Nicely done.


Very well researched. Good journalism.


To the surprise of approximately no one, career administrators are feudal, self-involved characters.

On another note, can anyone explain the EXTREME cognitive dissonance that the GUSA senators are displaying? They are frustrated with Olson’s railroading, but have still surrendered to his agenda instead of just holding onto the cash for now.

The only explanation I can come up with is that someone is trying to feather their resume for a presidential run…

Anyway, I eagerly await the results of the rigged vote.


Fareed is right in his final point. Undergraduate student leaders, by the very fact that they are only motivated/in power for AT MOST 2 years completely stunts their ability to know when to hold and when to go all in. What drives them is doing SOMETHING that appears productive and beneficial in the short span of time while they are the office holder. Olson and Co. are here for the long haul and, as evidenced by the frequent manipulations of the student body, know how to leverage student leaders’ egos and short tenures. Continuity of leadership and the institutional memory of a goldfish are going to keep screwing over the student body.

The real troubling aspect is that no one stepped up to oppose it (guilty of that myself), and the university appears to have no qualms whatsoever in exploiting these weak spots at the expense of their own students.