Consider, for instance, that the District, according to the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, is alone among major American cities in imposing government-enforced enrollment and employment caps on its academic institutions.
It’s an odd way to treat some of the District’s largest employers — employers that want to grow and pump still more money into the city’s economy and bring more residents into the city. But the political calculations of town-gown politics are pretty simple: The universities, nonprofit institutions that they are, don’t directly pay taxes. More importantly, the neighbors vote, while the students, not to mention administrators and faculty, do not.
The voting numbers in two student-heavy advisory neighborhood commission districts tell the tale. In one district in the middle of the American University campus, 29 voted in last year’s general election. In the remainder of ANC districts, no comparable district saw fewer than 269 votes. And in a district that includes most of Georgetown’s on-campus housing, a grand total of 10 voters cast ballots. In the ANC’s other districts, roughly of equal population, no fewer than 137 voted.
In other words, a District politician has reason right now to assume that students are roughly one-tenth as interested in participating in city affairs as the non-student population.
But the universities and their students are trying to change that. For one, the consortium commissioned a study earlier this year outlining its members’ $11 billion impact on the regional economy. Its representatives have testified in Zoning Commission hearings on the benefits of university growth.
More intriguing is a new effort to recruit students — often not known for seeing eye to eye with administrators — to politically support the institutions they attend. Last year, a group of Georgetown undergrads founded D.C. Students Speak to address a pretty basic problem. “The interests of students really aren’t reflected in D.C. government,” said co-founder Scott Stirrett, now a GU junior. “These elected officials need to recognize that students are their constituents.”
And those student constituents believe that having a healthy, growing alma mater is in their interest, Stirrett and his allies from other D.C. colleges say. They’re also pushing back against neighbors who tend to characterize students as Philistine occupiers responsible for their sleepless nights and trash-strewn streets.
D.C. Students Speak is working on getting students to care about these issues — historically, a tough task. To find a local student political campaign succeeding in any meaningful way, you’d have to rewind to 1996, when Georgetown students organized to win two ANC seats after neighbors successfully pushed for strict parking rules.
“Politicians count votes — we get it,” Stirrett said. “It’s important that students demonstrate to D.C.’s elected officials that they are a D.C. voting constituency” — a constituency, he adds, that includes a lot of people who plan to remain in the city after graduation.
To that end, Stirrett said, D.C. Students Speak has registered 400 students to vote. The group hosted a debate among the at-large council candidates vying in the special election earlier this year. At Georgetown, the group hosted a concert to raise awareness of one very real way local government has affected their lives — a recent law that made “unreasonably loud noise” between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. an arrestable offense.
The larger, tougher problem that the students have to tackle is the attitude that their opinions don’t really count— an attitude embodied in this comment earlier this year from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D): “If they have a permanent address in the city, they should be included. If they don’t have a permanent address, they should not be included.”
Said Stirrett: “It’s important to recognize that D.C. is a place where people often only live a few years. And that’s okay. These citizens should be encouraged to be engaged locally, to give back locally. This is how you build one city.”