“The Student Assembly is failing because its ideas, its goals and its purposes have failed it,” wrote Hatchet columnist Tom Schade in October 1969. And many shared his sentiments. The Student Assembly, GW’s student government, appeared to be just another tool of the University administration – blind and deaf to student interests. These sentiments led to the abolition of the Assembly in spring 1970.
Since the foundation of the George Washington Union in 1935, student government had struggled with the inability to influence administrative policies. Elected students gained valuable experience in parliamentary procedure, organization of political parties and participation in campus-wide elections.
Later, the Student Assembly’s powers – addressing student complaints, allocating money to organizations and lobbying the administration for policy changes – were more closely related to those of today’s Student Association than the earlier Union.
But in the late 1960s, intense student disillusionment swept into GW’s political realm. Students felt that University and government authorities were not responsive to student interests. The closed meetings of the Board of Trustees, cost cutting by the administration and important policy changes based on little, if any, student input, reemphasized that notion.
This sentiment reached its boiling point in 1970. A slate of four presidential candidates holding very different theories on the future of the Student Assembly, coupled with a referendum on the abolition of student government altogether, made the 1970 elections the most important in a generation.
Neil Portnow, the incumbent president, was running as an “abolitionist,” demanding the immediate dismantling of student government. Ed Grebow had a different idea; running as an “incorporationist,” he wanted the Student Assembly to become independent of the University, so it could sue, seek injunctions and negotiate binding contracts. Corey Garber wanted a more powerful student government and was opposed to either abolition or incorporation. The fourth candidate, Dan Mangold, was more militant than Garber but similarly opposed abolition.
Portnow won reelection in a landslide, winning more votes than the other three candidates combined, and, backed by the overwhelming passage of the referendum calling for abolition, set about dismembering the Assembly. He began transferring powers to other student committees; the Program Board took over event planning and the Student Activities Office delegated funds to organizations.
The final goal, in the eyes of Portnow and his supporters, was an All-University Senate, composed of students, faculty and alumni. The Faculty Senate, however – concerned that students would be voting on issues related to tenure, promotions and salary – soundly rejected the idea.
This proved the death of the dream. The most important voice the student body had – the Student Assembly – dissolved into a string of committees and appointed positions.
In 1976, after a six-year absence, student government returned to power, and reorganized as the Student Association.