By Anna Liz Thomas
In the original version of this article, there was some information missing regarding when the GISA Statute requiring physical presence in Geneva was adopted, and the state of PDC election reform. Corrections are included below.
Elections for the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA) are once again right around the corner. As we await the first batch of student applications, it might be useful to provide a quick primer on what these positions mean, and highlight some procedural concerns with the ongoing elections.
GISA Elections: A Primer
For those who are not already aware, the GISA Executive Committee comprises seven permanent core members: President, Vice President (VP) for Masters’ Programmes, VP for Doctoral Programmes, Treasurer, Events Coordinator, Administrative Coordinator, and Communications Coordinator.
Apart from the core members, the Presidents of the three Specialized Committees (the Environmental Committee (EC), the Professional Development Committee (PDC) and the Welfare Committee (WC) also serve as ad hoc members of the Executive Committee.
It would be significant to most students at the Institute that these ten positions come with a substantial financial incentive: a tuition waiver. For the five current open positions, the first semester of reference will be the following Autumn semester onwards. This tuition waiver incentive accomplishes two things: a) it encourages students to take up these positions; and b) it holds individuals in these positions accountable to the student body. An inevitable side-effect that may or may not be desirable is the somewhat official (and potential bureaucratic) nature of the Executive Committee that follows. They hold office hours, send out regular mail updates, and conduct regular, sometimes long meetings– among themselves, with the rest of the student body, and with initiatives. Needless to say, all of this can be put down to the need for accountability and transparency within GISA, given the nature of the positions that are occupied.
Spring Elections 2021:
For this election cycle, five positions are up for grabs: President, VP for Master’s Programmes, Treasurer, Events Coordinator, and President of the PDC.
Physical presence in Geneva: It is important to note that the GISA By-Laws require that the candidate is physically present in Geneva for at least two-thirds (⅔) of the weeks during which classes are in session for each academic semester.
It is quite possible that this rule has not been amended since the onset of Covid-19, and was perhaps set down as such considering those students who may be spending a semester abroad on exchange, for an internship, or conducting fieldwork for their thesis.* However, now that the classes are online, and Covid-19 cases continue to rise in many parts of the world, it is likely that any shift back to in-person life at the Graduate Institute will follow a hybrid model, at least at the outset. Naturally, this comes with a lot of uncertainty. Students who currently take classes from outside Geneva are unsure if or when they will be able to make their way to Switzerland. Students who are in Geneva are not quite sure if it is sustainable for them to stay in the city, when they may as well take the same classes from the relatively affordable comfort of their home countries. Given that the Institute has no objections to students who wish to take their classes from their hometowns, it seems almost unreasonable that being an elected GISA representative requires one’s physical presence in Geneva.
While it may have been obvious at one point that being in Geneva would help the GISA Executive Committee to effectively coordinate between the Institute’s administration and the student body, this is no longer the case. Examples have already been set, where a student has spent an entire semester outside Geneva, and effectively participated in student life, even taking up leadership roles in the IHEID community. Off-Geneva students have also highlighted the exclusion that remote students face both from the Institute and the student community as a whole. This election rule serves to simply further that exclusion. A modification that permits remote students to contest elections until the sun has set on remote learning might serve well to advance inclusivity goals for GISA.
Specialised Committees: While permanent members of the GISA Executive Committee have standardised election rules and procedures that apply to them, the same cannot be said for the ad hoc members of the Executive Committee. The Presidents of the three Specialised Committees also have their own specialized election procedures. This is explicitly permitted by the GISA Statute and the By-Laws, wherein Specialised Committees can have elections to leadership positions in a gathering of all students interested or directly involved with this committee, as long as the same is provided for in their statutes. It must be pointed out that these Specialised Committee statutes are not easily accessible documents, and are not available on the GISA website. Among the Specialised Committees, only the EC has their own website, and this website does not provide access to their statute. I point this out just to show that it is difficult for students to understand election procedures for Specialised Committees prior to the actual announcement of an election by GISA.
It is this specialised provision that resulted in the President of the WC being elected by the entire student body, earlier in October 2020, while the President of the EC being selected after an internal election process among EC members. In this election season, the PDC President will also be elected internally, the difference being that PDC candidate platforms have to be directed to GISA, while EC candidate platforms had to be directed to the EC.**
It remains unclear as to why electoral procedures for the Presidents of Specialised Committee have to be so different. Given that they are already distinguishable from interest-based or regional student initiatives, and have a larger, more incentivised mandate to serve the whole student body, it seems self-evident that all students should have a voice in these elections as well. For example, with the upcoming PDC election, it would seem that it is not just the Committee’s executive and non-executive team members who have a stake in the professional development of IHEID students, but the student body as a whole. An internal election might be ideal from the perspective of the Specialised Committee, but it also brings along with it a tendency towards bias. As a candidate, it might be easier for someone to influence the small set of individuals within the committee, over the larger student body. The Committee might choose to elect someone they know better (someone who may have already been inside the committee, and proved to the committee that they are capable and/or easy to work along with). This automatically puts an outsider to the committee at a relative disadvantage, even though they may still be a better candidate in terms of skills and experience– which again disadvantages remote students who are unable to participate in in-person team building events. It is also easy to see the other side of this argument: a candidate may not necessarily be meritorious just by virtue of winning a popularity contest.
Irrespective, elections ultimately boil down to just that: popularity contests, and in principle a fair election must account for all stakeholders– whether they are in Geneva, or outside of it; whether they are inside a committee, or outside of it.
Updates: Based on feedback received from GISA, a few things need to be highlighted ahead of the upcoming elections:
*The statutory provision requiring individuals to be present in Geneva to assume their position on the Executive Committee date back to 2014. It is in no way a novel requirement, merely one that dates way back to pre-COVID 19 times.
**Work on amending the PDC statute is currently underway, and the amendments will be proposed at the upcoming General Assembly on April 27, 2021. While this will mean the current Spring elections will remain internal for the PDC President’s position, the subsequent election will allow the whole student body to vote for the PDC president, provided the amendment proposals are passed at the General Assembly.
“Egypt to vote on constitutional amendments” photo by Ahmed Abd El-fatah licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.