It’s February at Georgetown: election time. So what’s on the ballot? For the most part, a slate of candidates proposing fairly modest reforms. With the possible exception of the Luther-Rohan ticket, candidates suggest small, agreeable steps, which nip at large and complex problems on campus. None of them — as reported this past Tuesday in The Hoya (“No Candidates Linked to Secret Societies,” A5, Feb. 10, 2015) — are members of secret societies. And no candidate proposes radically changing the Georgetown University Student Association. It may be the least flashy GUSA election on record.
Admittedly, there have only been so many GUSA elections. The organization is very young, founded in 1984. But student government at Georgetown is a very old tradition. Elections across its forms have featured both local and national celebrities.
Condé Nast (C 1894), whose eponymous company publishes Vogue, the New Yorker and other magazines, won an election to become the first student president of Georgetown’s first student government, the Yard, in 1891. Raymond Reiss (C ’19), after whom Reiss Hall is named, led the same organization in 1920. Phillip Lauinger — father of Joseph Mark — took the helm in 1922. Senators, congressmen, and even the founder of The Tombs — Richard McCooey (C ’52) — all held the post in the first half of the 20th century.
Past elections have brought contentious debates into the limelight. In 1996, one ticket in the executive election promised to dismantle GUSA from within. The candidates sought to return to the model on which the Yard had operated, which included incorporating student leadership across campus. It coexisted with a student council that included representatives from key — read: old — student groups on campus, Mask and Bauble, The Hoya, etc. and, in their account, didn’t suffer from the narrow elitism they attributed to GUSA.
The pair overspent their campaign allowance and were disqualified.
While subsequent tickets adopted a similar reforming mission, none succeeded in transforming GUSA. When a write-in ticket proposing the revival of the Yard did secure control of the GUSA executive, they more or less shirked their campaign promises. They were the first write-ins to win.
Another group of would-be GUSA reformers published a pamphlet called ‘Common Sense’ — pretending an overhaul of revolutionary magnitude. They managed to place six referenda related to constitutional reform on GUSA’s 1999 ballot, but even though all six passed, the incoming GUSA executive put none of them into force.
Georgetown’s most memorable election matched celebrity with divisiveness. In 1967, Bill Clinton was on the ticket. Clinton numbered among a handful of reformers seeking to dismantle the Yard — historical anchor to a fractious system of student government. By the 1960s, the Yard was only one of a number of levels of student government co-existing and competing for influence. Clinton neither won his election nor brought about an end to the Yard, although it succumbed to the creation of unified student government in 1969.
Then there are the Stewards. Menacing unseen student life since a slip of tongue first revealed their existence in the 1980s, their various “societies” have loaned much needed drama to GUSA before. The 2013 revelation that several executive candidates were members of the historically conservative organizations exploded into controversy in the election’s final days.
But why so much drama? Writing in The Hoya, Tucker Cholvin (SFS ’15) and Tom Christiansen (SFS ’15) describe GUSA campaigns as “a good deal of time, energy and effort expended on winning a position that is meaningless on the whole” (“GUSA, A Comedy of Errors,” A3, Feb. 10, 2015). They jest that the current executives might salvage their importance by holding a referendum on whether Tuscany’s Pizza should be revived, or if President DeGioia resembles Admiral Ackbar from “Return of the Jedi.”
It’s a catchy argument, which contains some truth. GUSA elections, heralding door-knocking, fliering, tabling, the creation of websites, platforms, and innumerable interpretations of Healy are undoubtedly shrill, look-at-me affairs. But the authors could have written the same of any elections. And in each case they would be wrong to call the positions “meaningless.”
Cholvin and Christiansen practically admit this. They praise, correctly, the Luther-Rohan ticket for putting forward a serious and considered platform on the issue of mental health.
But why does this matter if Cholvin and Christiansen assert that the position is meaningless anyway?
But such absolute skeptics of student government need only consult its most recent accomplishment — a cost-sharing agreement that makes it possible for student groups to hire American Sign Language interpreters for their events. Previously, these groups bore the full costs of hiring interpreters, which even the best-intentioned could rarely afford.
Student government changed that. So take pride in our boring, self-important election. Take care to cut through the noise and enjoy the parody. But don’t forget that many of our peers face real problems at Georgetown. Student government cannot remedy all of them, and it cannot perform miracles. Expect no utopia. Still, student government can make a meaningful difference, and who we choose to fill the role matters.