Georgetown University Student Association President Joe Luther (COL ’16) and Vice President Connor Rohan (COL ’16) began their term March 21 after winning the 2015 executive election with a satirical campaign. After less than a month on the job, the pair discussed their transition period, goals and future plans with The Hoya.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your first few weeks in office?
Luther: I think the biggest obstacle for us is that we started from scratch. We came in with no real platform, no real budget, and no real connections to GUSA. So I think the biggest challenge for us was getting acquainted with GUSA and really getting down to the details of the really important issues at Georgetown as well as the solutions and I think we’ve had a lot of help from both Trevor and other GUSA insiders which has been great. I don’t think we could have done this without Trevor or Abbey’s help so sort of getting that core team together.
Rohan: Something for me that’s been kind of difficult is getting caught up on initiatives that have already been started by Trevor and Omika’s administration and following up with that because us, our cabinet and our staff are not intimately familiar with the specifics of the issues that they were covering, so to follow up and to push through those last final steps has been a little bit challenging in that now it’s time to get the nitty gritty of these things done. Because we are not as familiar with these details as people that were involved in the previous administration, it’s been a little bit tough. However the previous administration has been accommodating and they have been willing to sit down with us and our cabinet and our staff to catch us up on specific policy changes and different university initiatives that they would like to see continue, and that they would like to see followed through.
How much continuity are you striving for from the Trevor Tezel (SFS ’15) and Omika Jikaria (SFS ’15) administration? What do you plan to change or plan to continue?
Rohan: One thing that we’re trying to change is the Multicultural Council. The rollout of that was not ideal, and it’s faced a little bit of opposition from different self-identifying groups here on campus. Not only have we secured them a budget of $1,000 through the executive discretionary budget, but we are working to repair relationships between self-identifying cultural groups and the Multicultural Council. That’s going to be big this year.
Luther: One of the first conversations we had right after the inauguration was about the Multicultural Council. We sat down with the new leadership [of the MC] this year, and we’re making a really big priority for them to carve out a niche on campus. I think a lot of people have been sort of confused as to what their goal is and their real mission statement is, how it’s different from the current climate within cultural groups, so this year, we’re going to work with the leadership a lot to carve out a place for it on campus.
Rohan: Another big change we’re making is with the Student Advocacy Office. We’ve completely restructured SAO so that now it includes an Office of the Free Speech Advocate. It’s going to include an Office of the Intellectual Health Advocate. SAO’s previous job was to focus specifically on conduct cases, so now there’s going to be offices under that that focus on conduct. This will create a larger student organization based on advocacy, where individual students and groups can come and get help when they need it. That’s going to be headed by Ryan Shymansky.
Free speech has been a buzzword on campus for the past year. How much are you prioritizing this issue and what are your plans for free speech advocacy?
Luther: Obviously, we don’t choose the issues that are going to be buzzing around campus, but free speech is obviously one of those ones that has come up a lot in this first month that we’ve had. We’re placing a great priority on making sure that the university’s free speech policies are fair and clear. We’re working a lot with SAO to restructure them and make sure that they’re responsive to student needs through the Office of the Free Speech Advocate because we’ve seen just in this first month that there is a lot of confusion among administrators, among the student body about exactly where the line is on free speech. We want to make sure that students and administrators are aware of this, and that the policies are enforced fairly.
Rohan: We have Sam Kleinman for our secretary of speech, and he has sat on the Speech and Expression Committee, which is in charge of handling speech and expression policy. One of the things that I do want to do with the GU Fossil Free thing [the group stormed the stage in Gaston Hall during an event in March] is to clarify the speech and expression policy, because it’s vague whether or not what they did violates speech and expression.
Luther: We’ve been in constant contact with Dr. Todd Olson to make sure that they are being treated fairly.
Rohan: I’ve had meetings with relevant GUSA posts and administrators to see how we want to move forward, and I’m pushing for clarification within the policy and administrators have responded positively to that. That will be hashed out in the Speech and Expression Committee. I think that whether or not they’re sanctioned is going to inform how they move forward. Administrators for the most part have been responsive, and they definitely recognize the implications of this.
When you ran, you did not have much of a platform besides your mental health initiatives. How did you develop a platform of sorts after you won?
Rohan: It’s the people. There’s not a platform. We had so many great applicants. We had 123 applicants for our cabinet. And that’s huge. And we gave everyone interviews. We have really qualified people, we have a very diverse cabinet. It’s something that we’re very, very proud of. We sat down with them all once and we’re having our meeting tonight in which we will hash out exactly what people want to do this year. They’ve all sat down and spoken with their deputy chiefs of staff and have elucidated exactly what they want to see in a year from now. On our part, the big things that we want to handle this year are mental health — we just began a conversation and are looking forward to working with The Corp, who has recently established the Social Impact Chair — and I’ve personally had some very good friends who have had really unfortunate experiences with mental health on campus. I want to see to it that that is dealt with. We recently initiated that conversation with administrators, and we’re hoping to see some changes.
Luther: I would say the other big thing that is part of our platform is about the campus plan. That’s by far one of our biggest focuses in our first month of office. This is something that we didn’t choose to put on our plate, but because of the timing, this is going to be something that we are going to be very focused on the whole year. We really have been committed so far to informing the student body about what’s going on. We want to make sure that their voices are heard in this critical time period.
Rohan: We had the petition and it got over 2,600 signatures. Last week, we presented that to [Office of the President Chief of Staff] Ferrara and we have been in countless meetings with administrators and spoken to neighbors specifically about getting more seats on the GCP steering committee.
Luther: We don’t see the student engagement ending here with the petition. This campus plan is a very long-running document; it’s not going to be finalized until 2018.
Rohan: We need to get our foot in the door, and we need to let them know that we need specific asks and we need to make sure that we stay on top of it. Some of the narrative has been, “Well, we still have a while,” but ultimately, we need to start this as soon as possible. This dialogue is critical.
What has been the reaction to the campus plan petition and initiative thus far? Have administrators cooperated?
Luther: I would say that overall the reaction has been pretty positive. Everyone who has been involved in the process has understood the flaws of the last plan and people have been willing to commit themselves to making sure that this next process is a lot more smooth. One of the biggest things about the petition is about participation and student representation. I think a lot of people have seen that this is very reasonable request that we have. So right now, we are in a state of everyone in agreement.
Rohan: We are not all completely on the same page, and nothing is guaranteed because it is a very complicated issue with a lot of factors at stake. But, we have had positive interactions with the administrators and the board. We just need things to be followed through on.
How has your relationship with the administration been so far? How are you planning on marking your administration’s relationship with them?
Luther: I would say that the administration we have been dealing with are really committed to student concerns. And that’s the reason why they’re here, that’s been great.
Connor: Not to say everybody is. But the majority is.
What made you decide to ask for applications for every single person in your cabinet?
Luther: Well we thought that we had a pretty unique opportunity with the way we ran our campaign — we came into office not really feeling like we owed anyone political favors. We felt like we had a completely blank slate and that GUSA’s reputation around campus had been one of the, I would say, you are either in GUSA or out of it. There was no middle ground. So, within our first couple of weeks we spent a lot of that time in meetings with student leaders and groups. We told them, “Hey look, there is an opportunity here to get people involved in representing students. We don’t want this to be another round of GUSA insiders.” We want to find the people who are most passionate, committed and engaged in different issue areas on campus and bring them into the fold.
Rohan: I think we have about half GUSA and half non-GUSA.
How will you collaborate effectively with a very large cabinet of 67 people? Are you concerned about the size?
Luther: I would say that I’m not worried about that. We have, our deputy chief of staffs, are great. I know it’s a lot of people to keep tabs on but we are creating new positions. They were representing issue areas that weren’t traditionally represented by GUSA. So by bringing all these areas into the fold, we felt as though we are going to better represent student life. I have nothing but confidence in them.
Rohan: And we have more deputies than before.
Luther: They have shown nothing but commitment so far.
Why did you add new positions to the cabinet?
Rohan: Craig Levites is the new editor-in-chief of The Heckler and the Minister of Fun. He was added so that he could steer communications in the right way. Our Director of Communications is Will Simons. He has been so on top of it. We still need to have that voice that we had during the campaign. That’s our priority, and that’s what Craig is responsible for. We added a lot of positions that were specifically aimed towards social justice because we felt that that was something we thought that GUSA wasn’t particularly attuned to in the past. Also, we would like more direct collaboration between GUSA and student groups who have been very vocal. The general sentiment on campus needs to be reflected in the organization.
Luther: Something we found interesting was that some of the most vocal voices on campus have no affiliation or interest in student government, when student government is supposed to be the one representing the students. So, by bringing those people into the fold we think we can really increase the advocacy on campus. Another position we split up was Health and Safety. Last year there was just the Secretary of Student Health. We divided it to Student Health and Safety. The secretary and undersecretary are both responsible for advocating for mental health and sexual assault, which were two huge issues on campus that we are giving enough representation to.
Rohan: The bottom line is that by adding all these new positions we are getting more specialization. There are so many problems that aren’t being addressed and cannot be possibly be addressed when you have more general roles that are dealing with a lot of different issues at once because we’re full time students. So, with this specialization, I hope they are going to have more of a presence.
Luther: And that’s not to say that the people in the previous positions were not good at their jobs. They just were faced with so many issues that was so much for one person to cover.
How much jurisdiction are you giving cabinet members compared to previous GUSA administrations?
Luther: We are giving them a lot more autonomy this year. We don’t want to micro-manage them. We want to be there stride for stride with them.
Rohan: I want to let them flourish.
Luther: We want to be the wind in their sails.
Rohan: And that’s also part of it! In order to get autonomy, we had to get the right people. And that’s why we had such extensive applications. Because, in order to follow through with our plan of not micro-managing, we had to have faith.
What are your plans to advocate for access to benefits for unrecognized student groups?
Luther: Actually, from day one, we had to allocate the budget with the issue of the Regents Cage [storage space for unaffiliated student groups]. So I feel like right off the bat we have made an important step by getting the cage through. This is something that we’re going to focus on this year.
What do you hope your relationship with the Senate will be?
Rohan: Our first meeting with the Senate was contentious because it was the budget. But, since then there has been more collaboration. Today we approved changing the bylaws that will allow for the Senate to be within our cabinet meetings. We need more coordination, cooperation and communication. The three big C’s!
Luther: We would really like to bring them into the fold as much as possible. It doesn’t make sense to have a student government to have two separate entities.
Connor: And on a lot of the same issues!
Luther: The exact same issues. So if we could increase the productivity, we increase the synergy! That’s what it boils down to.
Have you given up your prior commitments with The Georgetown Heckler and Improv?
Luther: About a week after the elections, Connor and I stepped down from our previous leadership positions at The Heckler. These have been satisfied by Craig Levites, who is the new editor-in-chief and Thomas Moakley, who is the new managing editor.
Rohan: We did not feel as though we would have the time to create the quality that people have expected for The Heckler to be. As far as Improv goes, we are still a part of that! We are not in board positions anymore, but we will still be on stage once a month.
How are you going to change the communications approach from the past GUSA approaches to make it more tailored to your personalities?
Luther: This is where we see the Minister of Fun coming in. I found it pretty easy right off the bat to get sucked into GUSA, the inner workings of student advocacy. It’s really important for us to stay true to the reason why we were elected — that we engage people in a way that’s fun, that they want to listen to. By keeping this tone constant throughout the year we really hope to change the culture of GUSA.
Rohan: In a non-pretentious way. Which is part of the problem of GUSA — nobody wants to go to something called “Campus Planning” or “Master Workshop” or something. They will come to, next Wednesday we are having a “Scream at GUSA About Stuff” event. This is going to be a general discussion where you get to scream at us about what you want.
Luther: You don’t have to scream at us. You can whisper. You can hold up signs.
Connor: Telegrams. But honestly it’s about getting back to the roots of the community, making sure we are engaging people and making sure that we do what they want us to do and not us seeing problems and going off on our own.
Luther: There’s a sign over there [points to sign in GUSA office] that says, “It’s just student government,” and it is just student government.
There hasn’t been too much of a humor component to your campus plan petition campaigning. Was there a reason that you chose to make it more serious?
Luther: We tried to create a comedic element to it but it just didn’t pan out because of timing. That’s something I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get around to during the petition period. But I would say that moving forward, we hope to continue to engage with humor.
Rohan: We, during the campaign, had a lot of time to focus. Humor takes time! If you look at our calendar, you see that we can’t be as hands on with it as we have been in the past. A lot of that is delegated into communications. But ultimately, I think that moving forward, what we learned from the campus plan petition and from the fact that the humor element wasn’t as infused in the dialogue as we wish it was, that should be one of our priorities moving forward. We should have more of a hand in the humorous side of communications.
Do you think humor has its limitations and have you faced any of those yet and do you expect to?
Rohan: We knew that going in. We can’t sit down with an administrator, trying to discuss policy goals, in a character.
Luther: We understand that it only works to an extent, if we want to get real things done this year. While I wish I could be telling jokes all day long, we recognize that this is only one element.
Rohan: It works for communications, it works for outreach, for keeping otherwise miserable meetings light. It works for everyone once in a while lightening the mood in administrative dealings. Ultimately, when it comes down to policy, there is a separation between taking things lightly and taking things seriously.
Looking towards the last few weeks of school, what are your plans for the final push?
Luther: I think what we really want, especially with this cabinet meeting tonight, is to hammer out a timeline. It’s very easy to get sucked into the, “Oh we have lots of time left this year” but we don’t. We need to make sure that when we have these initial meetings with our cabinet and staff that we have a timeline.
Can you talk a little about your leadership style?
Rohan: Joe and I have very different leadership styles. Joe is a compromiser. He is a consensus builder and I am a little more of a bull.
Luther: I like to take input, I like to hear all sides. I like to get people talking and coming to an agreement.
Rohan: I focus on the issues. I like to hammer things out.
Luther: I think we work well together.
Rohan: I think we work great together. We haven’t been annoyed with each other yet.
Luther: We’ll get there, don’t worry.
On a really grand, macro level, what are your priorities for the entire term in office?
Luther: I would say that something that specifically falls on our timeline, whether we like it or not, is Campus Planning and then there are a few other issues area on campus that because of how serious the effects are, it is very important for us to engage with them. Those are things like mental health.
Rohan: One of the things I would like to engage with more is disability. Lydia Brown, who is fantastic, is leaving. There’s such a big void and it’s something that personally touches me. I have a lot of friends who identify as people with disabilities and I see what they are going through as a result of entities that are not accommodating. Georgetown is not ADA compliant and needs to get there. That’s a component of the campus plan, but I think that that’s definitely something I personally would like to see be improved.
What are you most excited for in the future in this position?
Luther: I’m excited to be engaged with other areas of campus that I wouldn’t otherwise be engaged with. I have met so many different people, and people who have had so many different Georgetown experiences that I never knew about. Going into this I thought I totally understood what Georgetown was about. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant to go to Georgetown, but now I understand that there is no such thing as the typical Georgetown experience. To be able to continue to hear about all these different Georgetown experiences this year — I’m excited about that.
Rohan: This is a crash course in Georgetown. I feel like it’s personally connecting me to the institution and to the people. It is giving me a much better view of not only how things work, but how things have functioned historically and what this university needs. It will be really interesting to see how that perception develops throughout the year.