The Georgetown University Student Association senate’s rejection of a referendum regarding student opinions on divestment Nov. 22, as proposed by GU Fossil Free, surprised many on the Hilltop. Many more did not even know such a vote was happening. Before the senate vote, GUFF had advertised that a referendum on divestment would occur along with the February presidential election, presuming that student support would make the decision for a vote automatic.
The senate rejected the vote, with different senators citing that divestment was not an issue that directly affected students, that there was no advocacy group against divestment and that the referendum could distract from other issues facing GUSA. The vote and the confusion over the timing of the vote makes clear that GUSA needs to devise a clear standard for what conditions merit a referendum.
To begin, GUFF was too quick to publicly announce that a referendum would appear on the ballot; this kind of presumption does not cast the campaign in a positive light. GUFF was right to delay proposing a referendum, originally considered in 2013, to better educate students about the issue and gain petition signatures. But the support it received from students this year should not necessarily have led GUFF to be so cavalier that the GUSA senate would approve its referendum.
To make their previously implied referendum policy formal, GUSA only firmly enshrined in an omnibus bill this past spring that all referendums require a two-thirds vote of the senate in addition to gaining 300 petition signatures — something that had been implied but not specified in its rules before. This new rule — which has some benefits in making sure that student government has some say over referendums that might only be supported by a very small percentage of the student body — may have gone too far and given the senate more control over referendums than it should have.
The merits of a vote on divestment aside, if GUSA — and the senate in particular — adheres to its mission of engaging student voices and gauging student vision, then it should encourage plebiscites that originate within the student body, including from student organizations. The February executive election has the highest voter turnout each year, and GUSA should take advantage of such an opportunity. The September 2013 vote to reject a potential satellite campus was a great instance of student opposition to an administration initiative, but referendums do not only need to be wielded as a tool of student protest or in response to administrative policy. Rather, they can be used on a wide variety of issues facing the student body.
Moving forward, the senate should decide on an objective standard for what issues merit a referendum and create a more open process for student-advocacy groups to propose and gain support for school-wide votes, and to then submit them to the senate. At the same time, it can contemplate raising the bar that automatically triggers a vote, currently at 300 signatures, or a little less than 5 percent of the undergraduate population, so as to make sure minor issues with limited appeal to a substantial number of students are not considered.
Referendums are a great way to fulfill GUSA’s primary purpose — engaging with and supporting the voices of students at Georgetown; the senate should not turn its back on such an opportunity.
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