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General Assembly sees active student participation, but raises questions

First time to be conducted online, the GISA GA raised questions of procedural inclusivity among initiatives, especially in the changes of its statutes.

by Anne Lee Steele and Riya Sarin

On May 7, GISA held its first bi-annual General Assembly online, where relevant concerns were raised by student initiatives and the student body, and then voted on after discussion and debate The meeting was moderated by Mukta Dhere (MA, International Affairs), Communications Director of GISA, and while marked by a diversity of student concerns, it was also marred by a number of technical difficulties.

Outgoing Director, Philippe Burrin, opened the meeting with an introduction in French, speaking about the extraordinary circumstances being faced by the Institute as a whole, pointing to the Student Solidarity Fund in particular. Saying that the “symbolic display of solidarity” was more important than the fund total itself, Dr. Burrin noted that The Graduate Institute is “the only institution that also receives funds from students.”

During the Q&A that followed, Burrin noted that financial aid has been given in three forms from the Institute: reduction of tuition, financial help for lodging, and cash grants. When questioned about a discrepancy between official statements on the IHEID website about financial aid and private emails about financial assistance for second year students, Burrin reassured students that it would be investigated. After his address, statements were made by the GISA board members and the presidents of GISA’s Specialised Committees, followed by voting for binding changes in the GISA Official Statues.

Statements by GISA Executive Committee

After being introduced by Dhere, outgoing GISA President, Jasmine Pokuaa Oduro-Bonsrah (MA, Development Studies) spoke about how GISA has remained active in student life both before and during the ongoing pandemic, having facilitated ongoing negotiations with the Institute regarding issues such as housing prices, remuneration for Specialised Committee presidents, and most recently, creating the Solidarity Fund. Oduro-Bonsrah also mentioned other issues that were being advocated for, including making the Institute more accessible, supporting student parents in housing matters and discussing options for the graduation of the outgoing batch.

Outgoing VP for Masters Frenkchris Sinay (MA, International Law) spoke about the many Institute-wide academic problems that had been incurred due to COVID-19, including the recent decision to make pass/fail grade option available, along with issues with deadlines of assignments and theses. Sinay mentioned that many issues had been successfully resolved due to pressure from the student body, and thanked both the class reps and general student body for their advocacy.

VP for PhDs, Bram Barnes spoke about a number of issues being faced by PhD students, the most important being housing costs and a need for oversight by IHEID’s Human Resources (HR) department to manage the overworking of Teaching Assistants (TA’s). Barnes noted a recent win for PhD students in particular: that of the extension of scholarships and TA contracts are now available for 5th-year students, as opposed to the previous policy that only allowed them for 4 years. He noted that many student issues date back 5 to 8 years.

Statements by Specialised Committees

Following this, statements were made by the President’s of the Specialised Committees.

President of the Professional Development Committee (PDC) , Karun Gopinath (MA, Development Studies) said that this had been a “disaster of a semester” for the committee, given their focus on creating networking opportunities for students. In light of the pandemic, Gopinath said PDC has collaborated with the Career Services team at IHEID to hold two online Q&As to address career-related questions from the student body.

Environmental Committee (EC) President Zaninika Mariane Ntagungira (MA, Development Studies) spoke about ongoing EC initiatives in light of the pandemic, one being Scoop, where people can buy a variety of dried fruits and seeds, as well as their ongoing podcast, ‘The Ecologist’. Ntagungira mentioned that EC was recently invited to join a UN online event, noted a future collaboration with the Latin American Network Initiative (LANI) for Geneva Peace Week, and are working with the UN Director-General in Geneva on a project to change public perception of climate change.

Welfare Committee (WC) President Elizabeth Nakielny (MA, International Affairs) spoke about how their activities have been transformed post-COVID in order to respond to the rapid change of student needs. According to Nakielny, WC “filled the gap” in institutional support for students, citing mental health resources, the buddy system organised in collaboration with the Parent Initiative, as well as supplementing financial issues faced by students through the “Solidarity Initiative”, and a variety of collaborations with other initiatives.

Graduation Committee (GradCom) President Sacha Aellen (MA, International History) concluded the Specialised Committee section with updates on GradCom’s plans for the 2020 graduate party. Due to the pandemic, the graduation party scheduled to take place on June 21 will be postponed. Because of the ongoing pandemic, its rescheduled dates remain unclear.

Voting: Discussion, Opinions and Confusion

The meeting then moved to the final section , regarding institutional changes that required a wider vote. The three issues on the agenda were (a) voting on GISA Statutes and By-laws (a breakdown of which is listed below), (b) creating an “Advisory Board” for GISA, and (c) modifying the student initiative creation mechanism.

As GISA’s first online GA, there were a number of technical difficulties, and initial confusion regarding the voting process. After an initial count of votes were collected and nullified, current Administrative Coordinator Antonio García (MA, Development Studies) was asked to remake the poll, while Dhere continued to chair discussion, with input from both outgoing and incoming GISA executive board members, as well as individual students and initiative representatives.

Initially asked to vote on the changes to the GISA statues collectively (listed in their final forms below), the changes were ultimately divided and voted upon individually, after questions and protests from students emerged about the statue changes related to GradCom. According to the proposed GISA statutes and By-laws, GradCom was listed as a Specialised Committee with exclusive rights to hosting the graduation party and other events, as well as budgeting priority.

A motion to create an “Advisory Board”, an external body with consulting status to GISA, was also put to the floor. The proposed board would be composed of former members of GISA, former recipients of the Student Leadership Award, former Presidents of Specialised Committees, and other nominated persons. Questions were asked about the role of the group, and how objective and representative its recommendatory powers might be. The motion was ultimately struck down.

Student engagement was especially high during this section of the GA, particularly from representatives of the Latin America Network Initiative (LANI) and the Queer International Student Assembly (QISA). Citing specific bylaws and precedents in GISA policy, questions were asked about the need to include initiatives in the statute-writing process, the difference between Specialized Committees and Initiatives, and about the quorum for passing statute changes, which is currently 9 people (1% of the current student population).

The GA, which was originally scheduled from 6 to 8 PM, ran until almost 9 PM, and concluded with questions about how GISA might make the General Assembly more accessible to students outside of the usual physical (now digital) live event. With the momentum and engagement generated by the outgoing GISA board, it remains to be seen how GISA’s new board members will make it their own.

A breakdown of the votes may be found below. The results from the final voting process were as follows. The original proposed changes to the GISA Statutes and Bylaws are also attached below. (Bold indicates where the majority lay):

  • Voting on GISA statutes and by-laws
    1. Clarification on GISAs coordination of the Student Leadership Award (Article 1, Section 2)
      • In favour 74.3%
      • Against 22.9%
      • Abstention 2.9%
    2. Adding an article formally establishing the Statute’s by-laws (Draft Article VIII)
      • In favour 69.4%
      • Against 22.2%
      • Abstention 8.3%
    3. Clarification on making amendments both to the Statutes and to the by-laws (Draft Article IX)
      • In favour 68.6%
      • Against 22.9%
      • Abstention 8.6%
    4. Modification of the duration of the ‘nomination period’ for elections of Executive Committee members (by-laws Article 1, Section 4(1)(a))
      • In favour 86.1%
      • Against 8.3%
      • Abstention 5.6%
    5. Clarification on the current Executive Committee members’ engaging in social media during elections (By-laws Article 1, Section 5(4))
      • In favour 73%
      • Against 18.9%
      • Abstention 8.1%
    6. Creation of an article explaining all the specifics for the Student Leadership Award (By-laws Draft Article VII)
      • In favour 86.8%
      • Against 13.2%
      • Abstention 0%
    7. Continuing with the original version on the Statues about GradCom
      1. In favour 25%
      2. Against 72.2%
      3. Abstention 2.8%
  • Creation of an Advisory Board (GISA statutes: By-laws Draft Article VII)
    • In favour 31.58%
    • Against 60.53%
    • Abstention 7.9%
  • Modifying the Student Initiatives creation mechanism
    • In favour 47.37%
    • Against 44.74%
    • Abstention 7.9%

Photo by sasi on Raw Pixel

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