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Amidst COVID-19 crisis, GISA candidates debate for institutional change

GISA Spring 2020 Elections Coverage by The Graduate Press

by Anne Lee Steele and Isabela Carrozza Joia

A total of 15 candidates presented their platforms to the IHEID student body at the Spring 2020 Election debates last Tuesday, April 21 and Thursday, April 23, as they vie for positions on the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA) board.

With the positions for President, VP for Masters, Treasurer, and Events Coordinator up for grabs, contenders debated a wide array of issues as they were streamed live to audiences of over 50 students each. The debates were the first of their kind to be hosted online in their entirety through Zoom, an online video conferencing app.

The candidates answered challenging questions from the IHEID community that ranged from worries of financial support and institutional accountability at the Institute, to transparency and reform within GISA itself. They proposed plans, both digital and tacit, for receiving incoming students, shared strategies for negotiation with both current and incoming administrations, and addressed ways of rectifying the lack of true bilingualism at the Institute.

In light of the elections, the voting for which occurs today and tomorrow, both the audience’s questions as well as the candidates’ answers revealed a student body that is diverse — and sometimes divided — in how they define GISA’s role as the “connection between the Institute and the students.” Despite this, all appeared united in their mutual desire for community and institutional change, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

First Debate: GISA President and Events Coordinator

The first debate, held on April 21, began with an opening statement by the current GISA President, Jasmine Pokuaa Oduro-Bonsrah (MA, Development Studies). After delineating the rules of the forum, the first round of debates began, starting with the Events Coordinator position, followed by the President.

In her opening statement, Events Coordinator candidate Ailin Allelen Benitez Cortés (MA, Development Studies) emphasized her desire to facilitate community through inclusive academic and social events, whereas Aline Shaban (MA, International Relations and Political Science) emphasized the importance of promoting multilinguality. Both cited the need to engage more widely with the city of Geneva. Romina Pezzo (MA, International Law) highlighted the need to create new family-friendly events, as well as events that “improve interaction between initiatives”, a standpoint that was echoed by Milena Niehaus (MA, International Affairs). Niehaus emphasized the need to work with available resources and networks at the Institute as concrete means through which this could be done. 

The debates for Events Coordinator primarily centered around the need for greater coordination between the initiatives, particularly with respect to funding, planning possible scenarios for Welcome Month in light of COVID-19, and how their role itself may shift due to the possibility of an extended shutdown.

It is the platforms for the post of the President, diverse in both their scope as well as their objectives, that seemed to aptly illustrate the varying schools of thought that define student desires for their leadership. In her opening statement, Alexa Burk (PhD, International History) presented a platform based on “community-building,” “communication,” and “transparency” predicated on her previous work with the Welfare Committee. Kingdom Fungai Karuwo (MA, Anthropology and Sociology) followed, arguing for the need for leadership in GISA that is “accessible” and “approachable” in person as accompanied by mediums that might facilitate this, such as open suggestion platforms and “Meet Your GISA Initiatives” campaigns. Sargun Lalia (MA, International Affairs) highlighted the need for increased career development opportunities through initiatives such as an on-campus recruitment program, and proposed building partnerships with organizations throughout Geneva through “innovation” and collaboration.

During the debates, the three candidates fielded questions that fleshed out their visions for leadership at the Institute. When asked about their tactics for negotiating with the administration for the “needs of students,” the three candidates first acknowledged the importance of doing so and elaborated on their ideas. Burk defined her approach as “escalation” with the aim of making the process transparent for the student body, whereas Karuwo said his approach would be sourced directly from the students to move the issue “beyond emails and social media.” Lalia, in turn, expressed the importance of communication, saying that she would ensure student unity before making concerns more visible to the administration. Unexpectedly, no questions were posed to the presidential candidates on the status of bilingualism at the Institute, nor about the possible impact of COVID-19 on their duties.

Second Debate: GISA VP Masters and Treasurer

The second round of debates, held on April 23, began with an introduction and reiteration of rules by current GISA Administrative Director Antonio García (MA, Development Studies) before the opening statements and debates for Treasurer, which were followed by the VP for Masters. To say that these debates were more pointed than the first would be an understatement.

While their platforms differed in their approach, both candidates for Treasurer touched on the need for greater transparency in the GISA budgeting process while referencing comments and questions from the first round of debates. In her opening statement, Luise Garleff (MA, Development Studies) expressed the need for a participative and open budgeting process, which she would pursue through actions like improving the GISA website. She also stated that she would push for a higher budget from the Institute, as well as seek other sources of income. Beginning her introduction in French, Madlene Scheiderer (MA, International Law) highlighted ongoing issues that prevent budgetary reform and the current allocation of student initiative funds, including institutional politics and current hierarchical structures. Scheiderer focused on her objectives for rectifying these barriers for change, such as taking advantage of the change in Institute leadership, as well as finding new and more creative ways to fill in funding gaps.

The debates for the position of Treasurer closed with a series of questions that allowed them to expand upon their platforms, particularly as they related to the fair allocation of funds between the initiatives, how they would facilitate transparency in the budgeting process, and example ways to address the general state of underfunding for GISA and the initiatives.

With six candidates running, the debate for VP for Masters that followed was perhaps the most anticipated, as well as the most comprehensive by far. All candidates cited track records of involvement at the Institute, citing previous work as class representatives, leadership roles and projects pursued within initiatives, along with student activism experience. 

Nicole Gonzalez (MA, International Relations and Political Science) began her statement advocating for clear and open communication of students’ needs with administration, better guidelines for master thesis’ to strengthen response time, fair accommodation pricing, and multilingualism. Deepashree Maledavar (MA, Development Studies) centered her candidacy around improving online library resources and access to professional opportunities, as well as guaranteeing more transparency around scholarship allocation. Similarly, Massimiliano Masini (MA, Development Studies) emphasized the need for a more participatory and grassroots process in student politics, as constituted by a platform built on ownership, participation and communication.

Abby Naumann (MA, International Affairs) tackled issues of multilingualism and grading criteria, along with her desire to improve existing forums and services for students, such as the Master’s forum and psychological services. Claire Ransom (MA, Development Studies) expressed her platform’s vision around a policy of thorough communication, active transparency, and strong advocacy through pragmatic action on “basic needs”: affordable food, cheaper housing options, and bilingualism. The final candidate, Jana Sikorska (MA, International Law) highlighted the need for procedural change and centralized guidelines, particularly those related to improving access to emergency assistance, grading criteria, and community (with UNIGE, and between Masters and PhD students).

Perhaps in part due to the solidified format of the evening, as well as the high stakes of the race itself, the debate that followed pushed the limits of the six VP candidates. The candidates fielded pointed questions about a wide range of issues that affect the IHEID student body that ranged from achieving multilingualism to increasing collaboration with UNIGE. Questions were also posed about how to mediate the perceived differences between interdisciplinary and disciplinary students, their tactics for negotiation, and how they would address possible constraints to their future work. At perhaps one of the most tense moments in the debate, current GISA Communications Coordinator, Mukta Dhere (MA, International Affairs), asked the candidates if they would be willing to participate in meetings entirely in French, to which the candidates responded with varying degrees of fluency. 

The GISA Spring 2020 Election Debates signaled a number of shifts within the student body, encapsulated by the sheer number of candidates and community participation, an unprecedented amount in recent GISA history. While the outcomes of these shifts remain unknown, in a time of institutional change brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and latent expectations for the incoming director, these debates point to an increased sense of community stake in student issues. While they differed in strategy, every candidate expressed their firm commitment to the issues that remain important to the wider IHEID community.

Guide to GISA Spring 2020 Debates

In order to facilitate debate and engagement within the student body, our team has made a guide to the online debates, complete with times for questions and answers that were asked by the wider IHEID community. The questions listed have been simplified for clarity. The Graduate Press takes no responsibility for their content (except for the ones TGP asked). The videos are available in this Google Drive provided by GISA. You can also download the candidates’ platforms here.

Note: *NA denotes questions that were either unasked or unanswered during the debate. These questions were either posted in the debate forum, or were collected from the student body by TGP but were not submitted formally due to forum restrictions.

Events Coordinator (Debate 1):

  • Opening Statements (16:49)
  • What ways do you think we can improve the relationship between the GISA board and the initiatives? (37:30)
  • What is an idea for a COVID-19 isolation event? (41:20)
  • Assume that it’s three weeks until the start of Welcome Month. Ten of the Initiatives have planned picnics, the other half swimming in the lake. How would you respond to this? (48:58)
  • What do you imagine your ideal event to be at the Institute? (52:10)
  • How do you imagine the role of events coordinator if there are no (live) events to coordinate due to COVID-19? (56:31)
  • How would you plan the Welcome Month in light of restrictions on mass gatherings, and the possibility that students might not be able to attend the events in person? (58:03)
  • How do you plan to manage your time, given that the Events Coordinator is one of the busiest positions on the board? (1:08:15)
  • *NA: How do you imagine events to be a bridge between the Institute and the wider Geneva community, which operate primarily in French?
  • Closing Statements (1:12:13)

President (Debate 1):

  • Opening Statements (1:16:45)
  • What strategies will the candidates be able to implement to more effectively negotiate with administration? (1:33:50)
  • What groups do you think are missing or left out from student politics, if any, and who should be integrated more fully? How would you go about doing it? (1:41:30)
  • How do you describe the relationship between the Institute and its students? (1:46:50)
  • What financial reforms would you like the new director to bring to the Institute? (1:53:53)
  • What do you think our relationship to UNIGE should be? (1:59:30)
  • How would you ensure continuity in your work as President beyond your one year tenure? (2:05:15)
  • *NA: The Graduate Institute is officially a bilingual institution: is bilinguality something you will focus on in your role? If so, how would you facilitate this through your role as President? If not, why?
  • *NA: How would you adapt to shifts in your role due to the ongoing pandemic? Would your negotiation tactics and efforts towards transparency change in light of the crisis, given the change in in-person institutional access this brings?
  • *NA: How would you work to build community at the Institute if a significant number of incoming students (as well as staff) are only able to participate online?
  • Closing Statements (2:11:33)

Treasurer (Debate 2):

  • Opening Statements (18:00)
  • With so many initiatives vying for funding, how would you define “fair” allocation? (28:55)
  • Do you have a plan, or tactics in mind in order to put more pressure on the Institute for more transparency and/or funding? (31:53)
  • How would you engage the other board members in the decision process of budget allocation for more than 30 initiatives, when the budget request of each initiative are more than 3 pages each? (34:46)
  • How would you ensure that all initiatives have adequate funds, given that the Institute might not considerably increase funds any further? (38:23)
  • What fundraising ideas do you think can supplement GISA’s allocation from the Institute? (42:52)
  • *NA: How would you deal with a drastic cut in funding, due to COVID-19 related issues? 
  • *NA: How can the Treasurer work to fund and prioritize funding for groups that operate in French? Should it do so?
  • Closing Statements (46:16)

Vice President for Masters (Debate 2):

  • Opening Statements (49:30)
  • Would the Master’s VP be willing to coordinate with l’Amicale des Etudiants Francophones in lobbying for a greater offer in courses taught in French, and the wider use of French as an academic – and not only administrative – language? (1:19:35)
  • Do you have plans for further collaborations with UNIGE students’ association? (1:29:18)
  • How would you negotiate the often diverging issues and priorities of interdisciplinary and disciplinary students? (1:37:48)
  • En tant que Master VP vous participerez à plusieurs réunions et discussions qui se tiennent entièrement en français. Est-ce que vous pensez être non seulement confortables mais aussi compétents à discuter de sujets académiques en français?   (1:45:52) → Translation: As a Master VP, you will participate in several meetings and discussions which are held totally in French. Do you think that you are not only comfortable but also competent in discussing academic subjects in French? 
  • Which strategy and arguments would you suggest to adopt and use to convince the Direction of Studies to implement a clear grading criteria? (1:52:03)
  • Where do you feel GISA is placed in facilitating discussion in the student body? [Asked with respect President Burrin’s statement, published November 2019]. (2:02:04)
  • Given perpetual push back on the part of the Institute, how would you mobilize students to deal with what students want? (2:09:50)
  • *NA What course (if any) would you try to change and why? Do you have any concerns about the existing ones?
  • *NA: Given the different issues that students of disciplinary and interdisciplinary masters face, how will you ensure to equally survey, understand, represent and fight for students’ interests across all programmes?
  • Closing Statements (2:17:00)

Erratum: We were made aware that the previous version of this article had mistakenly claimed that Karuwo “echoed” Burk’s negotiation strategy as escalation. This has now been corrected in the current version of the article. The Graduate Press apologizes for the misrepresentation this may have caused. (24 April 2020, 19:15)

Featured photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

2 comments on “Amidst COVID-19 crisis, GISA candidates debate for institutional change

  1. Pingback: En pleine crise du COVID-19, les candidat.e.s GISA en lice défendent l’idée d’un changement institutionnel – The Graduate Press

  2. Pingback: The Graduate Press Wrapped – A year in review – The Graduate Press

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