Sunday night finds the Healey Family Student Center nearly exceeding capacity and Joe Luther (COL ’16) and Connor Rohan (COL ’16) on a quest to find a private space to conduct an interview for this article.
Frustrated in this endeavor, their offer to perform an interpretive dance in lieu of a traditional sit-down interview is cut short by a passerby: “Luther-Rohan, big fan!”
“I had random people taking pictures with me last night,” Rohan said later. “Quoting our campaign, you walk down the street and you hear it from the windows, like a musical.”
Each year, the Georgetown University Student Association executive race produces candidates proudly touting their extensive experience within the organization, or emphasizing their fresh perspective. This year, the annual clash between the GUSA insider and the GUSA outsider has been toppled askance by the entrance of a third category — the GUSA iconoclast, who proved to be the eventual victors.
Luther and Rohan won the 2015 executive race, whose results were announced just past 1 a.m. Friday, with 1,693 votes, after leading all rounds in the single-transferable vote system. With a decidedly unorthodox approach, their victory marks a departure for the GUSA executive.
In their bid for the GUSA presidency and vice presidency, Luther and Rohan targeted the apathetic, fatigued and jaded with their satiric promise of a “Youtopia” — interchangeable with “______topia” (pronounced “blanktopia”) — a perfect Georgetown where every whim will be satisfied.
“There are a lot of campaigns that try to make a mockery of the system and the way people treat it, and while we are trying to make a lot of commentary about the GUSA process and the way people approach it and how alienating it is to people, we are also trying to make commentary about Georgetown itself through what we’re doing,” Luther said.
The ticket’s unorthodox approach was a means to an end, but with their triumph, the pair does not plan to make a mockery of GUSA.
“We’re very careful to not have much farce. Farce doesn’t have anything underlying, but the way that I see it is that a lot of people don’t listen to the other candidates. They know of them, and might support them because they know someone in their campaign, but they don’t read their platform,” Rohan said. “We’re presenting issues in such a way where, maybe there’s not as much very clear content but at the same time we’re pressing very important issues … through a medium that makes people want to read it, and they want to think about it and talk about it and want to laugh.”
Nine of the 10 tenets of the published Luther-Rohan platform are, as Rohan put it, “impossible,” with the 10th tenet encompassing health and safety reforms. Now that they have been elected, the pair will assume office, but they face two large obstacles: a failed confirmation by the GUSA Senate and a demonstrated unwillingness of university administrators to work with the pair.
“Just because we have a mandate from the public doesn’t mean that people are willing to work with us, and we want to make sure people are willing to work with us and hear us out before stepping up,” Rohan said.
Luther and Rohan have prepared an alternate agenda for their term as GUSA executive, with a major focus on transparency and mobilization.
“I think GUSA’s biggest failing is that it really does not mobilize the student base well. At the end of the day GUSA’s power really does not lie in one or two individuals and the executive positions and senators,” Luther said. “Its power lies in mobilizing the people and informing them, to [let them] have a say [in] what’s going on in the universe. The only time I’ve seen GUSA mobilize people was last year during the satellite campus debate, and I think that’s in part because people are so turned off by GUSA and how they approach issues.”
Perhaps nothing has recently captured the fancy of a large swath of the student body as the resurrected Georgetown Heckler. The genesis of the Luther-Rohan campaign lay in the Georgetown Improv Association, which brought the pair together last year upon Rohan’s transfer from George Mason University, and in the satire publication, which gave them the notoriety and push to run. Luther serves as editor-in-chief, while Rohan is a managing editor.
Luther and Rohan both joined the flailing online publication last winter, which began to revive with Twitter coverage of the 2014 GUSA executive election, an achievement entirely orchestrated by Luther. His performance was enough for graduating editor-in-chief Henry Thaler (COL ’14) to eschew the established hierarchy and hand control to the eager upstart.
“I just felt like, with Joe, not only was he enthusiastic, but he was really funny, and he wanted to expand the Heckler and take it to a whole another level,” Thaler said. “Joe understood that a lot of people would love to read funny things about what’s going on in the Georgetown community, and because he’s plugged in he gets it and is able to put a funny spin on it.”
The revitalization, which includes a commitment to posting at least one new piece a day, has caused readership to grow from 100 unique views to 10,000 in a matter of months. Facebook posts easily attain over 100 likes, far exceeding those of traditional campus media.
“[We] heard Connor [at the vice presidential debate] talk a lot about engagement, how powerful our voice can be and kind of re-engage the students, whereas previous GUSA executives have failed at that. Even though what they’re doing is kind of satirical, it is kind of like the proving ground,” Heckler editorial board member Craig Levites (COL ’17), a campaign staffer, said. “If we can get that done during the campaign, if we can engage those people who are traditionally apathetic, I think there’s no reason why we can’t do it when we’re in office because I think we’ve been very successful at that so far.”
This familiarity with the mindset of the Georgetown student body reflects Luther’s background. Besides Improv and the Heckler, Luther has been involved in the Blue and Gray Tour Guide Society, New Student Orientation and Students of Georgetown, Inc. as director of marketing for Vital Vittles.
“Joe, I don’t think people realize, he is as much of a Mr. Georgetown as he is. His sister went here, so it’s all in the family. … He kind of runs this place and people don’t know it,” campaign staffer Emlyn Crenshaw (COL ’15) said. Crenshaw is also the executive producer of Improv and a member of the Heckler editorial board. “And Connor, if you’ve ever talked to Connor, you know he is extremely dynamic and passionate. He’s so driven that it’s almost scary. I think if there was some GUSA initiative that he wanted to get done, or if he had to get into a meeting about Aramark and was advocating for students in a room full of administrators, I know that Connor Rohan would be extremely vocal.”
In pursuing the GUSA executive positions Luther and Rohan follow in the footsteps of successful, high-profile satirical campaigns at Harvard College and Oxford University.
In 2013, then-juniors Sam Clark and Gus Mayopoulos won their executive race for the Harvard Undergraduate Council, having asserted they would resign if elected; Clark indeed stepped down, but Mayopoulos did not — and he thus ascended to the presidency.
“I think everybody was pretty surprised [when we won]. I think the people that voted for us were happy and I think a mix of that was some people were disillusioned with the student government and wanted to see something new go on,” Mayopoulos, whose term finished at the end of last year, told The Hoya. “I think some people just wanted to see the show go on and wanted to see out of morbid curiosity what would happen if you put a completely untrained person in a position of power, mild power.”
Harvard and its UC were plagued with many of the same problems Georgetown and GUSA faces: apathy, lack of communication and a divide between a largely forward-thinking student body and a conservative administration. Mayopoulos, who wrote for Harvard satire publication Satire V, was not a stranger to the substantive issues, but willingly tackled the UC’s learning curve.
“I think I knew less about the council than any other president before or even after this. I couldn’t micromanage because I had none of the knowledge necessary to do it and so most of my executive board was given pretty free range to do whatever they wanted in their capacities, so I think the different committee chairs appreciated it,” Mayopoulos said. “I don’t think they felt lack of guidance, but I think it was an exciting opportunity for them to take control of their committees in a very whole way.”
To ameliorate communication between the council and the student body, Mayopoulos’ team employed humor to attract the attention of students; in all other cases, UC proceedings continued in a professional and largely serious manner under his leadership, eliciting the respect of students and administrators — with one minor hiccup.
“When we met with [Harvard University President Drew Faust], the first thing she said was, ‘Where is your costume?’ because I had worn a Napoleon costume to all of the council meetings,” Mayopoulos said. “The second time I met with her, I did wear the Napoleon costume — I think there was definitely an association of me being a joke.”
“The weird thing is, I think, in my opinion, [Luther and Rohan] are quite a bit sharper with their criticism and their satire,” Mayopoulos said. “I think we were more weird — we would say things that were just nonsensical — whereas the ‘Youtopia’ idea seems to be taking specific shots at real issues, which frankly seems like a better way to go about it than we did. For a long time, just because it seemed so ridiculous to us, we never planned on being serious contenders.”
As Luther and Rohan prepare to take office, they claim that neither legitimacy nor humor will be sacrificed, but the pair, who can officially claim the titles of iconoclasts, will certainly be a large change for GUSA.
“Satire doesn’t mean that we’re not being serious,” Rohan said.
“I think there’s a very large difference between taking yourself seriously and taking your job seriously,” Luther added. “I think that, for years, people were really alienated by how seriously the GUSA crowd takes themselves, and I think that’s really hindered their ability to do their jobs, so we think, by taking a different approach by how we’re treating ourselves, it has no implication about how we’d treat the job.”