By Silvia Ecclesia
Disclaimer: this article includes quotes from external sources representative of the source’s point of view and perception of the events described and do not necessarily represent The Graduate Press.
On the rainy evening of June 24th, the first of probably many Town Halls organized by GISA took place on WebEx. Moderated by GISA President Aishwarya Tendolkar, the Town Hall saw around 23 people connected and sparked some interesting discussions.
To contextualize, the decision to hold a Town Hall was the outcome of a series of events which brought GISA’s attention to several issues. At the end of May, a group of students called for an extraordinary General Assembly (see GISA By-laws) to be held before the beginning of the new semester. According to these students, a number of issues that need urgent attention had come up; especially concerning the quality of the academic education offered by the Institute, and the constraints they perceived GISA had in addressing this issue. They fulfilled the necessary criteria, 1/10th of the student body’s signatures, to call for an extraordinary GA – as well as sent out a form to collect students’ main concerns and organized a policython to gather ideas on how to change GISA statutes, including with the help of academic counselors. However, ultimately, they decided to cancel the extraordinary GA.
According to a statement submitted to The Graduate Press by GISA’s president, “While we [GISA] respect the wishes and motions of the organisers and the efforts they put into this, the entire process and experience was distressing and deeply hurtful for the GISA board”. The statement goes on saying that the GISA Board was especially hurt by the way in which they claim they were “picked on and spoken about in an email”, and did not appreciate the “arbitrary sending of forms and ‘policython’ emails to selective students”. According to Aishwarya, GISA “continuously remained cooperative and collaborative with the organisers, trying to understand their vision for the GA. We had always offered to create a working group to work on the proposals of the organisers, but they refused and insisted on a GA”.
In order to better understand what the motives of the GA organizers were for cancelling the event, The Graduate Press also reached out to them. What emerged as their main concern was a perceived lack of collaboration and understanding from GISA’s side, despite them raising issues that were of interest to the whole student body. They felt obstructed in the holding of the GA and thought GISA was not currently the right environment to advocate for academic quality, therefore, they decided to not present an agenda – thus calling off the GA.
Per Aishwarya’s statement: “It is important that students be given enough time to know, understand, discuss and then vote for an agenda in a GA. Such short-notice GAs were not conducive for the changes that were envisaged by a few. Since haste makes waste, we decided to take it slow and open the floor for discussion in a town hall manner”.
Despite the turbulent beginnings of this Town Hall, it appeared to be a successful first trial for what the new GISA Board would like to make a regular occurrence with the student body. The survey circulated in collaboration between the aforementioned group of students and GISA to gather students’ concerns served as the basis for this Town Hall’s agenda. These included: academic rigor and choice, French courses and other language opportunities, Antenne-H and harassment, housing, GISA’s endorsement of social movements, career opportunities, GISA communications, scholarships, and the 2021-2022 graduation ceremony.
The conversation kicked off on the subject of academic rigour and, in particular, the concerns raised by MINT students around the lack of advanced methods courses for their programme and general dissatisfaction with this semester’s ‘Social Inquiry and Qualitative Methods for International Affairs and Development’ class. Solutions proposed revolved around the possibility of having specific workshops students could take (among the already existing ones) or, proposed by GISA, a session workshop to be held during the winter break which encountered positive response from the participants.
A similar solution was also proposed for the lack of advanced French language classes and other language courses. Apparently, according to GISA’s Administrative Director, the Institute had to cancel an advanced French language course in the past for lack of participation. Therefore, it is important to think about creative ways to make them fit into students’ schedules. The provision of a language certificate for the students’ passing the French language test is also being considered as an advocacy point. On the other hand, the possibility of having more classes in French has been pondered more carefully as some of the participants pointed out how it might disadvantage non-francophone students.
Remaining on the topic of academics, concerns were raised regarding the diversity of courses offered. Former QISA President Alexa brought attention to the lack of inclusion in terms of geographical representation, as well as the scarcity of courses around gender and diversity. In the context of the current reform of the MINT programme, it appears that recently the motion to create a track focused on gender and diversity has been approved (unofficially) however, students’ feedback remains key for making it truly inclusive and effective.
At this point in the conversation, Anna brought to the attention of the audience how the MINT cohort seems to have very particular needs and how it would be useful to create a specific group to represent them and advocate for them. The proposal was positively received by GISA’s president, who will take it into consideration.
Another major topic discussed was the effectiveness of the institute’s anti-harassment system, centered around Antenne-H. In the past, Antenne-H has been prevented from executing their job properly, thus leaving several harassment claims unpunished and ‘forgotten’. In addition, there is a clear lack of information, as several students do not know that Antenne-H is the Institute’s anti-harassment unit – in addition to not being familiar with Swiss laws around harassment and confidentiality. Some concerns were also raised regarding the non ‘gender-neutral’ nature of Antenne-H’s approach, which might not be as sensitive as expected to non-gender conforming victims of harassment. These were the issues highlighted by the participants. The organization of a consent workshop remains one of the main possible actions to at least partially address the problem. Given the difficulties in organizing such a workshop at the Institute level for faculty and staff, Aishwarya proposed having it as a mandatory requirement at the student level for being part of students’ initiatives.
The conversation then shifted to the problem of housing. Several students have raised concerns around housing, especially since the opening of the new residence. GISA is progressing on that front thanks to a constructive meeting with the housing administration. Increased security at Picciotto will be implemented to prevent theft and the introduction of residence assistants seems to be near. Regarding rent, from the meeting it emerged that rents at Grand Morillon are not actually established by the Institute but by the architects of the building, thus leaving almost no space for negotiation.
A considerable amount of time was then spent on GISA’s endorsement of social movements. Former GISA president Alexa first historicized the process, explaining how it was almost never used until 2020 when it was reformed. It has since become used significantly. Aishwarya presented GISA’s proposal for having more debates around the issues presented for votes to the student body. The idea was welcomed positively by the audience; however, it raised a somewhat heated debate around the difference between endorsing a social movement and endorsing a Swiss law. Some students were uncomfortable with GISA endorsing Swiss laws given the fact that we are a highly international student body which might not be very integrated into the local community. Nonetheless, it was pointed out how those endorsements aim at supporting those affected by the laws in our community, since residents are often affected by them just as much as citizens. The educational potential of GISA’s endorsements was also raised, thus confirming the need to have more debates before votes.
During the Town Hall other minor topics were discussed which did not spark much debate but are still worth mentioning. Aravind expressed the Professional Development Committee’s commitment to improving career opportunities and events, especially supporting the currently understaffed career services. GISA’s somewhat ineffective way of communicating through long emails was also put under scrutiny, and a viable solution was proposed by the audience – that of adding summaries of topics at the beginning of each email. The fact that those who got a thesis extension will not have a graduation ceremony was also touched upon. Aishwarya is continuing to advocate for a second graduation ceremony in March to give everyone their well-deserved moment of celebration.
Lastly, the floor was opened to the audience for discussion. A member of QISA brought up their difficulty in organizing their recent party at the new residence and the uncollaborative attitude of the Institute. Along the same lines, Aishwarya also mentioned that GISA is advocating for making the campus and residences more disabled-friendly: a form will be soon sent out to students for the creation of a working group around this issue. The conversation ended with a discussion around GISA’s lack of resources and over-prioritization. While some students were concerned GISA did not have enough power to advocate for our community, others highlighted how other groups and initiatives – such as QISA, the Femminist Collective, and United Initiatives – often take charge of advocacy. Collaborating and being involved in GISA’s work is the key for transparency and efficacy.
As Aishwarya said in the statement mentioned at the beginning “GISA is not the Institute, but the bridge between you all and the administration. […] we need your support and trust in this journey”. More Town Halls will be held in the future: make sure to support!