The election of Joe Luther (COL ’16) and Connor Rohan (COL ’16) to the Georgetown University Student Association executive elicited comparisons to the 2013 election of Sam Clark and Gus Mayopoulos to the Harvard Undergraduate Council.
Both campaigns wielded satire to highlight deep-seated issues germane to their respective institutions; Clark and Mayopoulos had, however, indicated that they would resign, if elected. Clark did indeed resign, but Mayopoulos chose to stay, becoming president.
He spoke to The Hoya a week before the election, reflecting upon his campaign and presidency, and offered thoughts on the Luther-Rohan ticket.
What are your general thoughts about the ticket? Was there anything that sort of struck your attention, or that you thought was similar to the way you approached your campaign?
I think, as in most cases, it looks like the satire is born out of frustration or discontent with the way things are currently being done. What’s interesting about satire is, well, it’s very useful in pointing out the problems it is less useful in solving the problems.
From what I could tell, the other candidates were all celebrating Georgetown to some extent or at least the student government or the students, and this ticket has decided to take a more critical stance toward the whole situation.
I think that is just something that I’m sure they’re thinking about — me and my partner Sam considered ‘How do you deal with after the election, if you do win? How can you shift your message once pointing out the problems is no longer your job, but providing solutions is?’
How did you go about providing those solutions? What was the transition like for you? It was a last-minute decision for you not to resign. How easy was it to assume power?
I think there were a couple of transitions that had to be made. The most obvious was getting along with the rest of the student government, because in a lot of ways, Sam and I had been some of a destructive force during the election.
We were mostly there to make fun of everyone and everything, and the Undergraduate Council, which is our student government, took the brunt of it, which we maintained wasn’t their fault but was rather the result of sort of having not a lot power when it came to making decisions at the school — mostly, because for all of its liberalness, Harvard is actually a very conservative administration and does not enjoy change. They are hesitant to follow the lead of the students too much and so my first job was to smooth things over with a group of people that I had to work with now.
A lot of that went pretty well, a lot of that I had to credit to my vice president who really took everything in stride. He was elected by the council, because when I became president, we left a vacancy in the vice presidency, and I thought he was really ready to work with me.
I’m curious, if these two candidates won, if they would both stay on or if they have two different opinions between themselves like how Sam and myself did. What it means to run as a joke and if you win what responsibilities do you have.
Both of you had said you would resign. After you decided to stay, was there a confirmation process you had to go through with the council? What was the reaction of both the council and the general student body who voted for you when you had said you would in fact resign?
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 some people were disillusioned with the student government and wanted to see something new go on. 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.
And then I think a lot of people were just like ‘Oh, that’s pretty weird,’ and then per usual there were just a lot of people who didn’t care. Within the student government I think there were people who were frustrated or felt betrayed and felt, ‘Oh, you went on record and said you would resign and then changed your mind.’ But it’s actually interesting so we had a resignation letter ready when we found out that we won. But there was no provision in the constitution to allow candidates to resign before they took the office so it was sort of the council’s own mechanisms that forced me to go home and think about this over Thanksgiving break. That’s when I changed my mind, and I was like, maybe something good could come of this. But I think a lot of people in the council were actually very excited and they were curious too and I think a lot of them were looking forward to whatever changed would come to.
The article also describes the debate as a pivot point, where you discussed issues seriously under the guise of humor. How did you balance the humor and seriousness and make people pay attention to you?
The weird thing is, I think, in my opinion, these two candidates are quite a bit sharper with their criticism and their satire. 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. It wasn’t until the debate that we realized that we had opinions that were just as valid as anyone else’s when it came to this, and that it’s possible for people who don’t really have an experience with student government to have ideas that are valid in those discussions anyway.
We did become more critical over time, but the only thing that turned us into serious candidates was people coming behind the platform saying ‘You know what, I’m going to vote for these guys.’
I think a lot of people did it imagining they would be the only one, and then enough people did it, and it became this bizarre reality. But I don’t think we really ever made the conscious decision to try to push for it to be a more realistic goal.
Did you expect to win at all?
I think it was about two days before the election results came out. Around that time, we talked about what it would mean and how we would deal with [winning]. Sam was involved in far too much to have time for student government, but I thought I could take it on. But it wasn’t until the very end that we were like this might be a thing.
You said you had narrow experience with student government. How much research did you do once you took office, or did you feel like you were fairly familiar with the issues?
I also wrote for a satire publication, Satire V, so I was in touch with most of the issues because I would research them for that purpose, but during the campaign I really didn’t know much about the inner workings about the government. It wasn’t until after I was sworn in that, that whole winter break, I just spent talking with everyone on the council and trying to get as much information about the history of the council, what it had done, what it had tried to do, where it had succeeded and failed, and how it structurally worked.
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. 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.
Did you encounter any problems with having people take you seriously?
When we met with the president of the university, the first thing she said was ‘Where is your costume?’ because I had worn a Napoleon costume to all of the council meetings. At which point, 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.
In terms of the reason why you ran in the first place, and now looking back on your administration, do you think you managed to address any of the problems that inspired you in the first place?
I think during the campaign, we identified some things the council could work on, and communication was at the top of the list.
My biggest challenge was, Harvard student government has always been effective in some ways, but it’s always had trouble communicating its accomplishments to students, and so I saw my biggest charge as keep the council running effectively — it can do that on their own, it doesn’t really need me to do that.
And my biggest challenge became how to communicate what the council was working on, struggling with and achieving, in a way that students cared about and wanted to learn about, and so I chose to use humor as the means of communication so we would send emails that made fun of student groups and poked fun at issues that were happening, but also tried to convey serious information about the issues that were actually happening. So we included gifs, made jokes, and I think even if people just looked at the pictures they still had to read the subject line to get an idea of what was happening.
I acknowledge that you can’t make jokes forever and eventually people will ask for real change and we delivered as much as we could, but I think it helped a council that was clearly struggling a bit because a joke candidate was able to succeed get back into a position where that couldn’t happen again.
What happened in the election to replace you? What approach did those candidates take, and how did they comment on your leadership?
So we had four tickets run, originally five, but one dropped out. I was lucky enough to be spared some pretty heavy criticism during the debates — I was there. There was some discussion of humor, and there was one ticket that ran using a lot of humor.
But in the end it was a more conservative ticket that won, both of them had been on the UC for years. It was definitely a situation where I think the faith in the council had been restored to an extent, and people were more likely to trust tickets of people who had already served in the student government, as opposed to people with no experience — which you could also totally read as people thinking that people with outside experience do terrible jobs, and I accept that as well.
Based on what people have told you, you would lean toward the former?
I think at the very least people found it [my presidency] amusing and hopefully some of the changes that we made would be sustained.
If you had to do it again, would you have taken office?
Yeah, I think I would do it again.
Having completed your term, would you have any precautions or advice to this ticket if they were to take office?
I think they seem like they can handle it, but if they’re serious they should really go for it and it seems like they really are. It seems like it’s an exciting race.