When Georgetown University Student Association President Norman Francis Jr. (COL ’20) and Vice President Aleida Olvera (COL ’20) were sworn in last spring, they inherited their office amid high levels of student apathy toward GUSA. The pair campaigned on a platform of “T.R.A.P.” — transparency, reform, accessibility and progress — and have had more success accomplishing the first two aspects of the platform than the latter.
While the pair has pushed for increased transparency and implemented mandatory bystander training in GUSA that seeks to change the culture of the organization, such internal reforms have not translated to success in advocating for students.
Rebuilding a Dysfunctional GUSA
Coming into their administration after previous administrations’ failure degraded student trust, Francis and Olvera had an uphill battle. Thus, the accomplishments of this administration must be evaluated in light of the problems of GUSA that they inherited.
Francis and Olvera took office in the first GUSA election after the resignation of resident Sahil Nair (SFS ’19) amid allegations of sexual misconduct; no complaints were filed against Nair through the Title IX Office or the Office of Student Conduct, according to Nair and confirmed by a university spokesperson.
Vice President Naba Rahman (SFS ’19), Chief of Staff Aaron Bennett (COL ’19) and nine other senior staff members also resigned amid allegations against other members of mishandling Nair’s misconduct.
Even before the resignation scandal, the organization’s lack of accomplishments had already begun to degrade student trust. In 2017, The Hoya’s editorial board awarded then GUSA President Kamar Mack (COL ’19) and Vice President Jessica Andino (COL ’18) a C+. The executives failed to work with a cohesive vision and made little progress in fulfilling their campaign promise of accessibility.
While President Juan Martinez (SFS ’20) and Vice President Kenna Chick (SFS ’20), who were appointed after Nair and Rahman’s resignation, did a commendable job, especially in valuing student activism and communicating with the student body, their predecessors had severely tarnished GUSA’s reputation.
When Francis and Olvera were elected, trust in GUSA was low. 38.9% of students indicated their trust in GUSA as weak, while only 2% indicated a strong trust in the organization, according to a February 2019 door-to-door poll of 615 students by The Hoya.
In light of the challenges the Francis-Olvera administration faced, the pair has made strides in rebuilding trust in GUSA.
Enacting Internal Reforms
The strong internal reforms that Francis and Olvera have implemented show promise of improving the culture within GUSA. The pair’s actions go a long way to fulfill the first two aspects of their campaign promise, transparency and reform.
The administration has improved GUSA transparency by publishing all their meeting notes, implementing a student feedback form and posting a biweekly brief from the executive on its Facebook page. By providing students with more information on GUSA’s operations, the executive has created more opportunities for student involvement.
However, as Olvera herself acknowledged in an Oct. 27 interview with The Hoya, the executives can improve their efforts to publicize information. The pair has created two new online platforms to connect with the executive — bitly.com/gusa-library and bitly.com/gusa-comment — but they have been poorly publicized. The quality of the executive outreach is also inconsistent, with meeting notes ranging from detailed and informative to unintelligible without context.
To further fulfill their promise of transparency, Francis and Olvera should better advertise their efforts by posting links to their online platforms on social media or in their weekly email to the student body. The administration must also ensure that all meeting notes posted are detailed and understandable for students who had not attended the meeting.
The current administration’s most notable achievement is in reforming the culture of GUSA. Under Francis and Olvera, GUSA has implemented a policy requiring all members of the student government to attend bystander training, a program coordinated by Health Education Services to address sexual misconduct. The university only requires three members of university-recognized student organizations to attend training.
GUSA members who fail to comply with the requirement will have a mark next to their names on the association’s website indicating they have not attended training, according to Francis and Olvera. The pair will also work with GUSA’s chief personnel officer to schedule makeup sessions in case of high demand.
Problems of sexual misconduct have occured within GUSA and on campus, as indicated by the 2019 Campus Climate Survey that shows 31.6% of undergraduate women, 11.6% of undergraduate men and 31.3% of gender nonconforming undergraduates have experienced assault since entering college. Francis and Olvera’s insistence on comprehensive bystander training is certainly a step in the right direction.
The administration’s efforts to make GUSA more transparent and implement bystander training within the organization are commendable. Such actions show that the executives are not afraid of being held accountable for their actions and encourage student trust of the organization.
Lacking Timelines, Communications
The remainder of Francis and Olvera’s platform — accessibility and progress — have seen fewer accomplishments from the administration.
On accessibility, the executive has partnered with the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access on its textbook co-op, through which students can borrow books for free. The administration is seeking to enroll Georgetown in the Capital Bikeshare program by the end of November, in which students can pay $25 for unlimited 30-minute rides.
Such initiatives, though relatively small, improve academic and transportation accessibility for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However, campaign promises made by the pair in February still lack tangible timelines. For example, the pair planned to increase signage of accessible routes on campus, but this policy goal is not seen on GUSA’s website, nor has the executive provided a timeline. The idea of an academic forgiveness program, which Olvera mentioned in their interview, also sees no timeline.
When proposing new initiatives, the executives should ensure they are not making empty promises and should work as much as possible to establish a timeline of action.
The executives also have an obligation to push for more transparency in the university’s Title IX Office, a significant issue affecting the student body. The Title IX Office has been understaffed since former Title IX Coordinator Laura Cutway departed in June 2018. After a yearlong absence in the coordinator position, the university promoted former investigator Samantha Berner to fill the coordinator role in July, leaving the investigator position empty.
Francis and Olvera have been emailing Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Rosemary Kilkenny (LAW ’87) and Berner asking for an update regarding the current investigator hiring process, according to Francis. The executives emphasized that they will continue to follow up with the university on this issue.
Continued demand for university action is important but inadequate for the GUSA executive. As students with the privilege of communicating to university administrators on a regular basis, Francis and Olvera need to move beyond what other students are able to do.
The pair must demand action from the university and communicate any updates they receive to the student body through email or social media. If the university is uncooperative, the executive also needs to make that clear to students so students can support GUSA in demanding more university transparency.
The GUSA executives have noticed the university’s lack of response to their current communications and are pursuing other avenues to confront the university. This recognition bodes well for the organization’s advocacy but, as the executives pursue these more assertive tactics, they should share the information they learn with students to allow more pressure to be placed on Georgetown in case of inaction.
Halfway into their term, Francis and Olvera’s biggest accomplishments seem to be reform within GUSA. In light of the poor performance of the Nair-Rahman administration before them, such a feat should not be overlooked. Moving forward, this editorial board urges the GUSA executive to institutionalize these positive internal developments to pass along to its successors. The next GUSA administration should not have to start from scratch; rather, it should be able to build upon the current executive’s improvements to the organization.
This editorial board also urges the executives to use the remainder of their term to achieve more policy goals. Their initiatives are commendable, and their stance on the Title IX Office are admirable, but, as they move forward with policy goals and conversations with university administration, Francis and Olvera should establish clear timelines for their policy goals and keep students informed about their communications with university administration.