Student Life

Residential Assistants, PDC Elections, and Conclusion of Intense Debate on BDS: Everything You Need to Know from Tuesday’s General Assembly

By Anna Liz Thomas

The Spring 2021 General Assembly (GA) took place online on the 27th of April, 2021. The moderator for the GA was Alison Eddy, the GISA Administrative Coordinator.

The GA began with Outgoing President Alexa-Rae Burk introducing the new GISA President, Aishwarya Tendolkar. Alexa also provided an overview of the work and achievements done by GISA, and in collaboration with other initiatives through the course of her term as President. The Vice President for the Master’s Programmes, Massimiliano Masini and for the PhD programmes, Ximena Osorio Garate,  then provided their updates as well. Following this, the Specialised Committees —the Professional Development Committee (PDC), the Environmental Committee (EC) and the Welfare Committee (WC)— provided updates on their ongoing and future projects.

The main items of the agenda were then brought forward for discussion. The agenda was as follows:

1. Change in language on the role of the GISA President within the GISA By-laws

2. GISA support for the BDS Movement and/or the Statement on the Apartheid Free Zone

3. Statutory changes to the PDC.

4. Institution of Resident Assistants at each of the Institute’s Student Residences

5. Changes to the Initiative creation and dissolvement process

6. Inclusion of students in the Institute’s LLM Programme within GISA

7. Changes in the Statutes of the WC

Change in Language on the role of the GISA President

The proposed language change relates to the role of the GISA President under Article VI of the GISA By-laws. The proposed change for the President’s role was from “Assures the link between the Administration and the students” to “Assures Student’s needs are advocated for to the Administration”. The GISA President clarified that this change was being introduced to be more in line with what the President has been doing in practice, as a natural part of their position, in terms of coalescing various student demands into simple requests directed to the Administration. She further clarified that this role was one that was fulfilled by the entire board. The vote was passed with 96.3% of the Assembly voting in favour, 1.9% voting against, and 1.9% abstaining from the vote.

GISA Support for the BDS Movement and the Statement on the Apartheid Free Zone

The vote was introduced by the Vice Presidents for Master’s and PhD Programmes, Massimiliano Masini and Ximena Osorio Garate, respectively. The vote was concerning two separate, but related subjects: firstly, to endorse the “ the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestinian students, which demands that Israel “[End] its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the wall,” “Recogni[zes] the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and “Respect[s], protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194,” (BDS Movement)”, and secondly, “join multiple Swiss organizations in declaring ourselves as an Apartheid Free Zone, and create a space free of racism and any form of discrimination, including from Israeli apartheid”. The provisions of the GISA By-laws under which the vote has been called and reiterated that this vote, unlike the rest of the items on the agenda, would be open for 24 hours from the end of the General Assembly. Further, it was highlighted that in light of the sensitive nature of the subject (in light of the mail sent by IHEID’s Director and the Director of Studies requesting open, engaging and respectful debate), there was a need to keep the engagement and debate respectful and inclusive.

The floor was opened for discussion, and various students brought up questions and comments in relation to the vote. Several students expressed their support for the initiative. Individual students brought up the fact that the BDS movement was not anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli, but rather a movement against discrimination and racism, and that the idea behind the vote was also to signal to the Graduate Institute that its students do not want it to contribute to the suffering of Palestinians and breaches to human rights by funding or supporting Israeli companies that are funding the Israeli state or the military. Another student brought to the attention of the GA the case of Tarek Mattar, a Palestinian man who was supposed to join the Graduate Institute last year, but was arrested for student activism and remains incarcerated in an Israeli prison. She emphasized that  this was an example of Israeli occupation and how it silences Palestinian student activists and academics who use their platforms to discuss human rights issues. Another example cited was the case of the Palestinian Technical University, where Israeli military had confiscated part of the land belonging to the University for the purpose of military exercises. This resulted in the campus frequently shutting down classes because it is no longer safe for students to be there while military exercises were taking place, which highlighted the issue of academic freedom in the debate.

Students also brought up the need to ensure that there is no pressure from the Institute’s administration in this matter, as well as the need to ensure that students are able to voice their concerns without backlash or fear of a toxic social environment. Students also asked questions about what the vote means in real terms for the Institute and its students, as well as the issue of how to ensure that the vote does not deny the existence of the Israeli state, given the lack of clarity on borders. The GISA Board addressed these concerns and questions, and stated that the vote was for GISA, and not the Graduate Institute, providing a means for GISA to put pressure on the Institute on how it related to Israel, not only Israeli universities, but corporations that fund colonization and systematic oppression of Palestinian people. The idea was that this would help students to mobilize and advocate for Palestinian freedoms without fear of being silenced or harassed. It was further highlighted that a vote to support the BDS movement was a solidarity measure, meant to advocate for human rights, and in no way a call for the erasure of Israel. GISA further highlighted that anonymous voting had been instituted in order to ensure that students feel safe, putting GISA on the line, rather than the students themselves.On the question of a fear of backlash, the GISA President observed that the heroes one often looks upto cared about more than just their careers, and that while students may be concerned about this, this was in her opinion, more important.

Following the 24 hour time given for the student body to vote, 73% of voters (300 students) voted in favour of the endorsement of the BDS movement, and 17.5% (72 students) voted against. In relation to the vote for the endorsement of Apartheid Free Zones 77.1% of the voters (317 students) voted in favour, while 13.9% of the voters (57 students) voted against.

Statutory Changes to the PDC

It was highlighted at the outset that GAs have to vote on statutory changes in specialised committees. Further, all Specialised Committee statutes have to be approved once a year. The outgoing PDC President Shubhangi Priya introduced the changes being proposed. This includes changes to the voting procedure to make sure that the whole student body can vote to elect the PDC President, rather than just the PDC’s internal members. Other proposed changes included changes to the responsibilities and authority of the President and Vice-President of the PDC, clarifications regarding membership rules, some language clarifications, and an addendum to account for the tuition waiver being received by the President of the PDC.

When the floor opened up for discussion, it was brought up that the proposed amendments to the PDC statutes were not visible to the whole student body, due to some technical issues with the Google Document. After this was remedied, a few minutes were given to the GA to parse the edits, before the voting commenced. The proposed changes to the PDC statutes were passed with 85.7% voting in favour, 2.4% against, and 11.9% abstaining.

Institution of Residence Assistants (RA) at each of the Institute’s Student Residences

GISA clarified that by voting on this subject, GISA will advocate and ask the administration to implement RA positions at the Student Residences. Former board member Bram Barnes who had introduced this proposal explained how the Institute used to have  some form of student support for the residence. Given the large volume of issues and questions that students have regarding residences, the proposal was meant to provide extra support for housing, and to give students a sense of ownership over their spaces. The positions would be similar to a TA position, making the RAs (who would be students)  paid employees of the Institute who would receive compensation. The nature of this compensation would be negotiated between GISA and the administration in time, and students would be involved  in the process. On the question of how the selection process would be, and whether an election would take place to appoint RAs, the response was that there would be an internal application process similar to other job applications at the Institute. The new residence would have RAs for every few floors, while Picciotto would have 2-4 RAs who could be approached for emergencies, questions and concerns, and move-in orientation processes. The possibility of student unions and student committees for the residences was discussed, and the concern with student unions was that this would increase student organizing efforts without working to resolve the issues. The incoming President’s proposal to have Housing Grievance Redressal Committees was also discussed, and it was generally concluded that having RAs would not preclude the possibility of suchCommittees.

When the matter was put to vote, 86% of the voters voted in favour of instituting RAs, 11.6% voted against, and 2.3% abstained from voting. There was a historically high turnout in terms of student participation for this vote, more than doubling the votes for previous social movements.

Changes to the Initiative creation and dissolvement process

The matter for discussion was the changes to GISA statutes in relation to the creation and dissolvement of student initiatives. The proposal was to  change the statute in order to update it with the practice currently being followed, to include within the initiative creation process, the details of the students who will be President, Treasurer, Events Coordinator, and Communications Director. An additional change was to highly recommend having an ad hoc advocacy position, given that initiatives become more political, and in light of the creation of United Initiatives, this could be a good way for students to act as a community.

For the vote, 23 voters were in favour of this proposal, 2 were against, and 3 abstained.

Inclusion of students from the Institute’s LLM Programme within the GISA Mandate

Currently the 1-year LLM students are not a part of GISA. This is a result of many factors, including the fact that the programme is run by different administrations, they pay different fees, and the students have additional resources that students within GISA’s mandate do not have access to, such as a designated psychiatrist. However, LLM students have expressed an interest in being involved in GISA given that GISA advocacy directly affects them during their time at the Institute. It was clarified that a vote in favour of their inclusion does not guarantee the same; it would simply allow GISA and the LLM students to advocate for their inclusion to the administration with the consent of the wider student body. When the floor was opened for discussion, a question was raised about the status of other law faculty students which have different levels of integration with the Graduate Institute, such as those who are part of the Geneva Academy. GISA clarified that they could advocate only for those who had expressed an interest to be included. Further, different cohorts have different perspectives on whether they wished to be included, and given the nature of the one-year programme, the negotiations would take some time.

32 people voted in support of inclusion,1 person voted against, and 2 people abstained from voting.

Changes in the Statutes of the WC

The proposed change was in relation to clarifying the language to make sure that the President of the WC would be elected by a majority vote of the student body. Additional clarifying language was proposed in relation to the tuition waiver, and specified that the election must take place within the first four weeks of the Autumn semester along with the election of the GISA Executive Committee members.

90.6% of voters supported the change in the statutes, 3.1% were against the change, and 6.3% abstained from voting.


Finally, there was a call for all students to express any topics before the GA. However, no topics were raised.

The GA was called to an end, with the outgoing President making a short farewell speech where she expressed gratitude to the student board for the support she had during her term, and her willingness to be available to the new student board and the student body.

Photo by The Graduate Institute Geneva

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