This article is part of a series of explainer pieces by the Voice on some of the most important topics on campus. Other articles in the series can be found here.
GUSA, the Georgetown University Student Association, is a somewhat infamous organization on campus that has been the subject of multiple calls for abolishment and reform (including from the Voice’s editorial board) despite its continued work on behalf of the student body.
In spite of near-constant pushback from students, some version of student government has existed for 150 years. Today, it consists of two major branches, the executive and the legislative, in addition to a Constitutional Council, an Election Commission, and a number of appointments to external bodies. GUSA members are tasked with representing students through creating policies and programs, working with the university, and allocating the student activities fee.
How did GUSA start?
GUSA itself is just shy of 40 years old, but the concept of student government at Georgetown started in the 1870s. Driven by a need to coordinate athletics across the university, the Georgetown University Athletic Association (GUAA) was formed in 1874 and codified in 1889. GUAA consisted of three elected student officers, as well as the managers of every athletic team. GUAA, which was also known as the Yard, almost exclusively handled athletic matters such as scheduling and equipment.
When the purpose of student government broadened in 1920, the name “the Yard” stuck. GUAA continued to exist, but the power was in the hands of the College Student Council, which had wide-ranging responsibilities over student life. At first, the Yard consisted of a president, secretary, and treasurer who were elected each year and representatives from each class, though it grew in 1940 to include leadership from prominent student organizations.
Similar councils were formed for the SFS in the 1920s and the NHS in the 1940s. The three councils were unified in 1968 when a referendum passed all three schools to unite the students under one governing body. The schools held a constitutional convention to create the Student Government, which was in place from 1969 to 1984.
This organization included a president and vice-president elected by the whole student body. Each school (now including the MSB) elected five students as did each class, forming a 40-student Senate.
This structure gave way to the current GUSA in 1984. GUSA, as outlined below, is the first of Georgetown’s student governments to have branches, with the Senate and executive branch separated. A judicial branch was added in 1990. Unlike previous forms, this new government does not rely on different schools, instead using class years to elect representatives.
What does GUSA look like today?
GUSA in 2020 can be broken down into five branches. The three main ones mirror those in the U.S. government; executive, legislative, and judicial. Two additional organizations are the Election Commission, which oversees elections, and a group of students selected by the executive and approved by the Senate who serve as Georgetown student representatives on external boards.
The Senate works through committees that advocate and coordinate student initiatives or resolutions, which are intended to serve as the opinion of students on certain issues. They also confirm executive and judicial appointments and allocate the student activity fee each year.
The Senate is composed of 29 senators, with six from each of the senior, junior, and sophomore classes, seven from the freshman class, and four at large senators from any of the non-freshman classes. Senators are elected each spring, with the exception of freshman senators who are elected in the fall. In the summer, the transition Senate conducts business without representation from the incoming freshman class.
The Senate is led by a speaker and vice-speaker who set the agenda, run meetings, and are generally responsible for the administration and functioning of the Senate. Currently, the speaker is Daniella Sanchez (COL ’22) and the vice-speaker is Eric Lipka (COL ’23). They, along with the chairs of each committee, make up the Ways and Means Committee which handles internal reforms and accountability, as well as helping to govern the Senate.
Besides Ways and Means, there are three more committees in the Senate that meet regularly. Senators are elected or assigned to committee roles (depending on the role) at the beginning of each year.
PAC, the Policy and Advocacy Committee, is the largest––nearly every senator is part of it. They handle all external Senate business including developing and promoting policy changes, heading projects with students in conjunction with the executive, and bringing bills using the Senate’s limited powers to support causes or urge the university to take action. Senators on the committee choose policy areas to focus on and can be appointed to be policy chairs in those specializations. Each member of the committee chairs at least one policy coalition in conjunction with an executive member. PAC is currently headed by Chair Leo Rassieur (COL ’23), and Vice-chair Joshua Marín-Mora (SFS ’21).
The second committee is the Finance and Appropriations Committee (often referred to as FinApp), which allocates the student activities fee each spring at a budget summit. They are also the only committee that can propose legislation using money from GUSA’s allocated budget or alter the balance of the Student Empowerment Fund (SEF). Senators have to be elected to serve on one of the limited spots on the committee, which is currently led by Eric Bazail-Eimil (SFS ’23) and Henry Dai (SFS ’22). Nine senators serve as liaisons to specific groups of student organizations, such as the Media Board, which oversees all student publications, called advisory boards, and three adjuncts handle additional duties. The chair of the committee serves as GUSA treasurer, and the vice-chair serves as the liaison to the SEF.
The SEF is a new addition to FinApp’s responsibilities. Approved in 2020, the fund will allocate $50,000 each year from the student activities fee (beginning in Fiscal Year 2022) towards an account that cannot be withdrawn from until 2037. The money is intended to be used then to execute a large project the students agree on. A similar process led to the construction of the HFSC in 2014.
The third committee is Ethics and Oversight, which handles internal issues of GUSA’s conduct and attendance, and acts as an oversight body. They also handle conflicts of interest and have the power to investigate and bring measures of impeachment against senators found to be committing misconduct. The committee is led by a chair and vice-chair elected from the Senate, and the members include representatives from the Senate, executive, and student body. The current chair is Zach Volpe (SFS ’23) and the vice-chair is Olivia Kleier (SFS ’22).
The Senate normally meets once a week during the semester, and is required by their bylaws to meet once every two weeks. These have occurred Sundays at 5 p.m. for the past few years. At each meeting the full Senate receives briefings from the executive and Senate leadership, debates any bills before the Senate, has elections or makes appointments if needed, and finishes with a period of public comment. Resolutions must be brought by senators, though other students often find sponsors for their initiatives. The Senate also must confirm all appointments and most projects from the executive branch, as well as any bylaws change.
The Senate, like the rest of GUSA, has somewhat limited power, and can only pass resolutions directly making change on issues related to the structure and work of the Senate itself, or calling for a student referendum. The rest of the bills they pass either show GUSA’s solidarity with a specific group or issue, urge students to take action, or urge the administration to take action. In recent years, the Senate has passed bills calling for referendums by the student body on divestment and a reconciliation fund for the descendants of people enslaved by the university.
The GUSA Executive is currently led by President Nicolo Ferretti (SFS ’21) and Vice President Bryce Badger (MSB ’21). In addition to general GUSA operations and communications, the executive oversees a collection of policy chairs that work to enact policy. The GUSA executive also serves as the student body’s primary communication with university administrators, which has become increasingly relevant as students rely on the executive for information regarding the university’s decisions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
GUSA executive tickets are elected each February and serve a one-year term. The bulk of their work occurs in the academic year following their election, though the summer is traditionally used to begin initiatives. The GUSA president is expected to be in D.C. over the summer.
The president and vice-president, along with their chief of staff, appoint students to their support staff and policy chair positions. These appointments are approved by the Senate.
The positions in the executive must include a deputy treasurer, historian, and the director of the SAO. Other positions can be included in the executive charter, which is submitted to the Senate to detail the structure of the executive branch. The Senate also appoints auxiliary officers to handle specific duties in conjunction with the executive. These include the Chief Communications Officer, Chief Personnel Officer, Chief Operations Officer, and Chief Engagement Officer.
Students must apply to be policy chairs or serve on policy coalitions, though in recent history positions have gone unfilled, leading to instances where teams have a single member. Policy coalitions themselves are relatively new. They were implemented in 2016, combining previously two disparate aspects of GUSA: under-secretaries in the executive and committees in the Senate. Though each body still appoints members to the coalitions, work is now more collaborative, with senators serving on teams alongside executive members.
A coalition currently can exist on the following topics: Academics Affairs, Accessibility, Active Military & Veterans Affairs, Arts, Athletics, Dining, Entrepreneurship, Free Speech, Gender Equity, International Students Affairs, LGBTQ+ Advocacy, Mental Health, Race and Cultural Inclusivity, Religious Life, Residential Living, Sexual Assault, and Student Safety, Socioeconomic Advocacy, Student Conduct, Student Health, Student Organizations, Student Workers, Sustainability, Technology. Transportation, Undocumented Student Inclusivity, and Unrecognized Groups. Depending on student interest and need, the focus of the different coalitions can be changed, and new ones can be added by a vote from the Senate.
The executive also has the power to appoint representatives to external boards. These appointees are approved by the Senate.
The Constitutional Council
The Constitutional Council hears any cases brought forth by members of GUSA or students on questions of the GUSA constitution and bylaws. It is composed of three councilors, one of whom chairs the council.
In order for cases to be heard, at least one member of the Council must think the case “involves a substantial constitutional question.” Decisions must be issued within ten days of a case being heard, and the Council may issue both majority and minority opinions. Any majority ruling is binding on GUSA. Losing parties in cases may make motions for the case to be reconsidered, though the Council may choose not to do so.
Members of the Council are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They can remain on the Council for as long as they are a student at Georgetown. The current chief justice is Layla Weiss (MSB ’22).
The Election Commission
The Election Commission oversees all GUSA elections and referendums, including conducting voting, announcing results, and responding to any allegations of violations of GUSA’s campaign rules, which include spending limits and distinct campaign periods.
These campaign periods begin two weeks before presidential elections and referenda, and one week before Senate elections. Before campaigning, candidates must attend a session where rules are explained and candidates can sign candidacy forms.
Complaints about violations of these rules are submitted to the Commission, which reviews them and presents them to the Senate.
In conjunction with the Senate, the Commission holds presidential debates and can hold Senate town halls prior to elections. After each election, the Commission presents the results to the Senate, which must verify them.
The Commission may have up to five members, though in recent years membership has fluctuated between one and three. Members can remain on the Commission for the duration of their time at Georgetown. The current chair is Caden Koontz (SFS ’23).
GUSA representatives on external boards represent the interest of Georgetown students on university and external committees. These include the Board of Directors, the Main Campus Planning Committee, the Athletics Advisory Board, the Speech and Expression Committee, the Disciplinary Review Committee, and the Georgetown Community Partnership, among others.
Abolish? Reform? Why?
GUSA has faced a series of calls for reform or abolition in recent years, as well as more general criticisms about its efficacy and the populations it represents. A series of resignations from the Senate last year, including at least one citing a toxic work environment, are just the latest manifestation of backlash against GUSA.
In the fall of 2018, then GUSA president Sahil Nair (SFS ’19) resigned following the resignation of his Vice-president Naba Rahman (SFS ’19) and much of his cabinet, citing complaints including a toxic work environment. The other officers indicated they would return if Nair stepped down, which he did, though the Senate later demanded their resignations as well. An emergency Senate meeting was called, during which the body passed a resolution acknowledging “recent events, actions, and resignations have severely damaged public trust in the Student Association.”
Nair said he never faced any formal complaints through the university’s Office of Student Conduct. This was confirmed by university Vice President for Student Affairs, Todd Olson.
Regardless, the resignation of Nair, preceded by the resignation of much of his cabinet reinforced doubts many students had about their student government and its leaders. Later that school year, as has periodically occurred in the past, a movement to “abolish GUSA” emerged, posting signs on campus encouraging students to advocate for a referendum that would change the nature of student government. Their Facebook has remained quiet for the last year.
The concerns cited by the Abolish GUSA group were not unique to Nair’s resignation. His successor, Juan Martinez (SFS ’20) acknowledged in an interview with the Voice last year lack of confidence in GUSA was always a problem he noticed, often leading to the election of “outside candidates.”
In a document he shared with members of the student body in early 2019, former Sen. Logan Arkema (COL ’20) shared some of the problems he observed in GUSA, including toxicity, bureaucracy, and a prioritization of reputation over policy work.
GUSA has also struggled with gender parity in leadership—according to GUSA’s archives, since 1969, when women were first admitted to Georgetown, only 19 percent of student presidents and vice presidents have been women. In 2018, the Class of 2022 elected seven men to fill the seats allotted to freshmen, shutting out nine female candidates. The first woman of color to be GUSA president took office in 2016, and GUSA has only had one president or vice president who identifies as transgender or non-binary that the Voice is aware of.
These trends, which were acknowledged as both real and problematic by many current and former GUSA members in the fall of 2019, can have the effect of creating an environment of GUSA that is not representative of the student body.
“GUSA has this reputation as a white boys club, and so for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-het man, it doesn’t feel like a welcoming space in the first place,” Chad Gasman (COL ’20), a former senator who identifies as non-binary told the Voice then.
Though multiple administrations have taken action to improve the standing and efficacy of GUSA, the criticism from the student body has not been erased and remains a crucial factor in understanding the role of GUSA on campus.
- On the Record with current GUSA executive
- Examination of gender in GUSA
- This year’s budget process
- Most recent Constitutional Council case
- Examination of the work of policy teams
This post has been updated to fix a typo in the graphic and updated information about gender in GUSA.