Opinion Student Life

The Ambivalent Politics of/at The Graduate Institute

With student movements at the forefront of protests all over the world, fellow graduate students ask whether the same can be said at the Institute. What does student politics look like? How should it be?

by Surya Ghildiyal & Fabienne Engler

From the White Rose Society to Tiananmen Square to Anti-Vietnam demonstrations to the present day Hong-Kong Umbrella movement, students across the world and throughout history have been at the forefront of educating and organising against repressive regimes and policies. Consequently, universities have acquired a significant role beyond a place of work: they are places of conscience. 

The Institute, however, is different, a difference proudly demonstrated in its modern architecture, extremely expensive student housing that pushes poorer students to the periphery, and an overall emphasis on CVs and professional development. Given how the Institute markets itself as an institution of “academic excellence… located in the heart of International Geneva” and its establishment in the aftermath of the appalling violence and devastation of the First World War, it is strange how this academic institution can foster political ambivalence on global issues (world affairs in Institute speak), especially issues concerning lives in the Global South, with such ease. The Institute has taught us the following lesson: the most employable of us are the ones flattest in their political positioning. 

This ambivalence is palpable in the very (infra)structure of the Institute. The classrooms have been designed less as classrooms and more as conference rooms ready for consumption by international organisations. There is a lack of ‘hanging out’ spaces within the Institute. In case of full occupation of the kitchens on the disciplinary floors, the space at Salon Davis and outside the library cannot be used to have conversations over food. Students are expected to walk all the way to Picciotto Common Room – a place spatially separated from the Institute – to heat their food and eat! How does one exchange ideas and share thoughts beyond the classroom when there are no common spaces available? The very thoughtfully designed infrastructure of the Institute has reduced an academic institution to a place of use, instead of a place of learning and unlearning. 

Additionally, the task of nurturing a political conscience is apparently outsourced to our respective initiatives, while the Institute aligns itself primarily to its role of shaping our employability. Various events organised by the initiatives such as LANI, MENA Initiative, CTRG and The Feminist Collective in the previous semester came as a breath of fresh (political) air. Many important conversations on various political struggles  were started and solidarites were forged. We will especially remember the passionate event on indigenous land rights — led by indigenous leaders themselves and facilitated by LANI — or CTRG’s conference Race and Black Male Studies with Dr. Tommy Curry.

Furthermore, as the elected representatives of student body interest, one would expect the GISA student union to be at the forefront of various struggles at the Institute and beyond, especially considering that all the aforementioned initiatives are its formal offsprings. However, instead of voicing solidarity with international struggles like it used to, we came to realize that GISA has instead reproduced the politics of reputation espoused by the larger institution itself. 

In a particular instance of brutal (and lethal) police violence against peacefully protesting students in Jamia Millia University in New Delhi last month, a solidarity statement was drafted by some Institute students. GISA misled the students into believing that 240 student signatures were required for the statement to be endorsed by it. This clearly went against GISA’s statute and, on being apprised of the rules, it retracted the earlier given number. It however, maintained its position to give voice to all student opinions and admitted that 11 people were opposed to the statement; whereas more than a 100 students publicly endorsed it. Consequently, it changed the statement from “the student body of IHEID” to “the concerned students”. 

It clearly let a few individuals, who expressed in personal messages their opposition to a statement against police brutality and state repression, circumvent the democratic and participatory processes foreseen by its own statutes. In the previous three semesters, we have not come across a single global issue where the students of IHEID have been mobilised by GISA. So instead of “having an opinion” about tear-gassing libraries and beating students black and blue, we encourage the student body of the Institute to make use of GISA’s Article VI on GISA support for civil society movements and campaigns to reappropriate politics at the Institute. An urgent need for doing away with the politics of backroom negotiations and creating a more vibrant space and politically aware and active student body representation is called for.

This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.

Featured photo by Tanisha Rayamajhi.

8 comments on “The Ambivalent Politics of/at The Graduate Institute

  1. Nina-Miranda Menicou

    Hi, thank you for your article “ambivalent politics of/at the Institute”; it is certainly important for such voices to be heard despite everything.
    However I would like to point out the following: the Institute never hid its true identity, it never misled anyone into thinking something different. It never called itself a university but israther registered as the Graduate Institute. Everyone applying and choosing to come here knows what they are buying, they have seen photos of the style of the classrooms, they are smart and educated young professionals who understand more or less what’s going on.

    Therefore, while this is indeed an arena of education, it has its own character and it never advertised otherwise .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Edgar Martinez

    This was painful to read. The authors come off as whiny and perfectly represent the idea of first world problems. The poor students have to “walk all the way to Picciotto Common Room…to heat and eat their food”. Those poor souls braving 45 seconds of walking from the Institute to Picciotto! Invoking past student movements like in Hong Kong or Tiananmen Square, then complaining about their own woes of walking 200 meters for lunch, or GISA not using just the right wording in a statement against violence in India, or the Institute focusing on enhancing the student’s chances of gaining employment after graduation would almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

    Have the authors attempted to join GISA to implement some of the changes they would like to see? This piece would be significantly better if instead of complaining about such ridiculous things that make them seem completely out of touch with reality, they wrote about what they and their colleagues are actually doing (if anything). Although it’s the easier route to complain without making any *real* efforts to change a thing, it would be refreshing if the Graduate Press would publish materials from the students who eschew this easy route for something that will actually make a difference or inspire something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Little Panda

      I do not understand the aggressive tone of your message. I see you are writing from a position of privilege, since many students cannot afford living in Picciotto and using the facilities there (even if it’s just getting a cup of tea).

      Also, it is a fallacy to say that someone has to join GISA in order to have an opinion regarding how it is acting… Nonetheless, using your very logic, perhaps you should refrain yourself from criticising voices from the periphery and join the very periphery this very article is talking about to see the structural problems…


      • Edgar Martinez

        What is my “position of privilege” that you’re telling me I have? I don’t live in Picciotto, if that’s what you’re implying, and I never said I did in my original comment. I live in what the authors call the “periphery” where rent is cheaper. The Picciotto Common Room is available to ALL Graduate Institute students for free — there is no entrance fee to enter, eat your lunch, or use the microwave.

        I also never said that someone “has to join GISA in order to have an opinion”. I merely asked the question whether they had, and offer it as a kind suggestion that actually joining will be far more effective than this approach. GISA is not some faceless unchanging entity. It is for the students and by the students. There are very little barriers to get involved instead of sitting back and hoping a critique motivates others to do something.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Paras Arora

    Fabulous piece! Verbalizes something that so many politically active/conscious students at the institute feel but have felt incapable of articulating. Even if we ignore the institute’s blatant disregard for its student in many respects if not all, the Institute has also failed at providing its students with the neoliberal promise that might have attracted so many students in the first place-internships and jobs. We have heard the same lines so many times-“You are on your own. It is what you make of it.” If that is what it really is, then the Institute should stop advertising their student’s accolades and achievements as their own too.

    Moreover, the other comments fundamentally miss the point that the authors are trying to make. Only a part of the Institute is devoted to “executive education” for “professionals”. There is an entire complicated political history that underlies the neoliberal transition from student to “professional” consumers. The article is hinting at precisely that chequered history which has made universities into apolitical spaces where not only the politics of outside but politics within an institution becomes marginal to its functioning. And that marginalization is dangerous for the world and students, both.
    And those who find these articles as equivalent to not the “real” deal are assuming that a critique is a useless act devoid of “reality” which inhibits growth. It is almost funny that people are assuming that the authors haven’t been active in GISA or any other student’s initiative. And even if they haven’t been, which is still a baseless assumption, GISA membership is not the ONLY way of politically bringing about change at the Institute.

    Critique, of which Surya and Fabienne’s piece is a perfect example, is essential to hold the institute accountable for the (false) promises that it made when attracting hoards of students from across the globe.


    • I am sorry, but what should the Graduate do according to you? Providing jobs and internships? I agree that the Institute could invest more in the career service and look for more opportunities, but the Institute provides you with a degree. Each student needs to find his own career path.

      About politics. When does the Institute “has taught us the most employable of us are the ones flattest in their political positioning?” Has the institute discouraged the students from having political ideas? I am not aware of such and I do not believe this has ever happened.
      Furthermore, as deplorable as state violence towards citizens can be, maybe, as it seems, not all students were interested in participating into a solidarity statement. I am in favor of the statement, but 100 students out of 800 and more are not the majority.
      Usually, as in other organizations and communities, a laud minority claim to be the majority in order to push their own agenda. As honorable as the cause can be, the Gisa, as representative of the whole student body needs to take into account and respect any view and cannot take a stance without a full endorsement from the student body or at least the one from the majority.

      The issue regarding politics at the Institute does not end here. It does not regard only the student body but also the research outputs produced.
      My impression, which can be completely wrong, is that research at the Institute is politically and economically driven with few exceptions within the research departments. Saying this, I think the political spectrum is well covered with professors coming from different realities and professional experiences although an inclination towards neoliberalism tends to exist.
      Regarding money, as a private institution, they need to monetize on the research they produce. If IHEID was a public university I would criticize this aspect, but as a private organization how can you blame them?

      Regarding the dangerousness of apolitical spaces, naively I wish for a research institution that produces apolitical and independent outputs and that is not polluted by bias political stances.


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