The new student group GU Fossil Free made waves on campus in January by advocating for full university divestment from coal and fossil fuel within five years. Now, these same students, frustrated by administrative inaction, are looking to achieve divestment through a laudable and effective use of the student referendum.
Student referendums that arise from outside initiatives, rather than through Georgetown University Student Association senate proposals, are unusual on campus. However, they have the unique power to bring attention to relevant campus conflicts, gauge student opinion and present a powerful statement to the university administration — if they are successful.
A petition circulated by GU Fossil Free last spring garnered 1,400 signatures, proving that Georgetown students are attuned to this issue and indicating that many do value sustainability over endowment growth. While the purpose of a referendum is to come down on one side of an issue, this one gains legitimacy because its passage is not a foregone conclusion. There would be no insight gained from this referendum if it would inevitably be overwhelmingly supported or opposed. Although it takes 300 petition signatures to initiate a referendum, there is no guarantee that the vote will be one sided.
Another legitimizing factor of this referendum is that it specifically pertains to university policy; it does not create legally binding contracts with a third party such as the local government. The power to act upon the referendum’s verdict, in this case, resides solely in the hands of the administration.
Though this proposal comes too late to be included on the Sept. 26 GUSA senate ballot, it is an impressive example of a student group outside of GUSA exercising its right to a referendum. This is a rare, if not unprecedented, occurrence that will hopefully inspire other groups to make similarly effective use of bringing contentious issues before the student body.