By Silvia Ecclesia
On December 7th, after the General Townhall organized by the Graduate Institute’s Director, exactly at 1 pm on our website, a press release from a group of grassroots students was published announcing their occupation of the Maison de la Paix cafeteria starting at 2 pm of the same day until their demands are met with “meaningful action”.
The decision to take this quick and important step, according to Aurélie Semunovic, one of the student organizers, stems from two specific recent incidents that “felt endemic of the administrative responses to the student body”. First, posters that were part of a campaign organized by the Graduate Institute’s Feministe Collective for the Day to Fight Violence Against Women had been taken down from the Institute’s walls on November 29th by the University’s administration. The Collective had been asked to remove the posters in view of a big event that was going to take place in the Maison de la Paix, however, when the Collective refused, the posters were removed by the University’s Administration and put up again only the week after*. Second, on the snowy evening of December 2nd, the entire Institute’s student body received an email that was mistakenly sent by the Director in which she complained about the students dissatisfaction with the new logo, to say the least.
The student occupying the cafeteria have three demands, that are here reported in short and can be found more extensively in their press release:
- Governance: (1) An independent external audit of internal processes (2) the creation of an Independent & External Reporting Mechanism.
- Labor: Salaries of IHEID Teaching Assistants (TAs) need to represent the Geneva average TA pay including social welfare benefits (unemployment, AVS, and pension).
- Representation: We want student representation on each level of IHEID decision-making.
According to Aurélie: “ we plan on staying here for the next two weeks if necessary, until we are heard. […] This is representative of many students’ emotions, it was easy for students to come to this event today due to the fact that the answers from the director were unsatisfactory”. The protesters have attracted a lot of media attention, from the Geneva canton, and even at the Federal level. Moreover, according to them, they received a lot of silent support from those students who cannot join in the occupation. “We also have to remember why some people can’t be here. There are people that depend on the Institute for their salaries, their houses, their education, maybe even their visa. They do not have the chance of speaking up” (Tobias, student protester). In addition, the #stopsilencingstudents movement has also being circulating a petition for students and alumni to sign which has collected (at the moment of writing) 255 signatures.
To the other protester we contacted, Tobias Drilling, the demands “resonated with a lot of ideas that [he] supported and wished for since [he] started studying at the Institute”. For Tobias, while the two events that sparked the occupation are “specific examples” and “the most pressing at the moment”, their demands could actually tackle the systemic issues of oppression and silencing students. “The demand that students are involved in decision-making would have a very long and deeply structured impact”.
Nevertheless, the student body is not completely unified in this venture. It has to be noted, that the students who organized and are bringing forth the protest are a grassroots group that is not part of any elected body at the university. The Graduate Institute Students Association (GISA) is the elected organ with representative power, especially in the eyes of the Administration. In fact, Marie-Laure Salles, commenting to Geneva Solutions, “stressed that the ‘students who are doing the sit-in are not in any way representing any of the two official associations, neither the ADA (Assistants’ Association) or the GISA’”. This is in fact correct. The GISA supported the sit-in demands on the evening of December 8th after an internal vote. As stated by them, they recognize the importance of the demands presented by the protesters and “strongly advocate for the same, as we have over the years and will continue to”. However, it has to be noted that, per GISA’s by-laws, the support of a movement is possible even through a simple vote among the Board members, while the full endorsement of a protest can only be done through a student-wide vote. While 255 signatures in 48 hours are a historic number, a general vote among the around 1000 students has not been done and it is therefore not possible to know with certainty what proportion of the collective supports the sit-in.
Still, as stated above, Aurélie believes that “this is representative of many students’ emotions”, as we also witnessed during the townhall, where more than 200 students expressed a common dissatisfaction. However, how widespread is this emotion? Some opposing voices are rising. For example, student Filippo de Gennaro commented with: “I don’t think it is correct to talk about collective opinion or united student body. I have been talking about this matter with a lot of people recently and most of them seemed sceptical and not supportive of the protest, be it for its demands or its means of implementation”. As another example, a student who requested to remain anonymous stated: “I’m not sure it helps to move things forward in the end. I wonder if this is the only way out in terms of negotiations and especially if it will be effective. Overall, I have the impression that there is a lack of understanding of each other’s issues. I hope that the campus can calm down and that the dialogue will triumph, rather than the confrontation that is proposed by a minority of students. I think that lots of students in contrast want improvement but with another approach…”
According to Aurélie, their decision to not act within the institutional organizations such as GISA or the ADA, stems from their perceived impossibility to “equate the level of advocacy that is needed in such an institution like ours” due to the mechanisms they have been placed under. However, the current GISA Board members do not feel like this is the case as they have not felt deterred from working or advocating.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that advocacy and change were not possible before. ADA had been negotiating better salaries for Teaching Assistants for several months. Members of the Femministe Collective advocated for the organization of a Consent Workshop and achieved their goal at the beginning of this semeste. And according to an anonymous student advocate, Antenne-H was subject to a management change in September as well as a revision process which was slowly showing its results. This is also confirmed by a recent email from the Director reading: “Reflection and work to improve this system had begun last spring following the conclusions of a general HR audit of the Institute conducted last year by the services of the Republic and Canton of Geneva as part of the regular monitoring procedures.”
However, according to the same anonymous source, “some of the students involved in the organization of the protest have never advocated for these issues before this protest” which results in them being often unaware of past progress and improvements that are sustaining their claims, for which credit goes to others. “I do agree with the demands. No one is contesting the requests, however, as a student body already struggling from receiving transparency from the administration, the organization of this protest suffered from the same dysfunction. Such as lack of transparency, and excluding the bodies who are already advocating. A group that aims at elevating student voices without including them”. As confirmed by the organizers, the Femministe Collective and the ADA have not been consulted by them, even if some individual members of these associations have joined in the occupation. In addition, while students who are skeptical about the sit-in are welcome to go to the cafeteria and talk to the protesters or to text them, the organizers never directly addressed the concerns that were raised in several Whatsapp group chats through a widespread message.
As a last comment to our interview, especially referring to the criticism over their lack of representativeness, Aurelie concluded: “To the students who feel we don’t represent them, our goal is not to represent ‘them’, our goal is to represent the interests of students that include ourselves. You don’t need to be elected to represent your own interests, you can advocate your own interests. You can take a piece of paper and collect as many signatures as possible and advocate for that”.
As a last concern, the Graduate Press also received an anonymous email lamenting the lack of sensitivity when publicly making “references to allegations of sexual harassment […] which we would supposedly ‘all know about,’ which is clearly not the case.” While the comment was sparked by a specific question that has been raised during the townhall, the discomfort is continuous as rumors about sexual harassment have been brought up very often in the past week. In fact, the protesters’ demand number one asks for “an external review of outstanding sexual allegations.” Nevertheless, these allegations have not been clarified. Hopefully, according to the Director’s comment to Geneva Solutions, she “had already hired an external mediator to receive sexual harassment complaints at the institute in order to strengthen the independence of the process”, and other measures have been taken to address the issue, even if still not officially announced.
The current sit-in is certainly supporting the already existing negotiation processes and advocacy requests that have been done at the institutional level. As recognized by Tobias, the two should be complementary. In fact, according to the GISA Board members, “GISA has been advocating for these issues for years with the administration. The protests and townhall have certainly amplified and accelerated the solutions to the issues raised in the sit-in and those that GISA has been actively advocating for for so long”.
At 11.44 Friday morning, the student body received an email “Suite de Town Hall” with a “Message from the Director” which might have brought appeasement in the hearts of our students. In fact, the Director spells out the measures that are being taken to address all three demands posed by the protesters; demands that have been negotiated with GISA and ADA as “elected associations representing the students of the Institute, [which] have long been the legitimate interlocutors of management” (quote from the email). TA’s salaries have been increased and discussions for the improvement of their working conditions have begun; student representation and involvement has been increased; and an “external and specialized person of trust” will start working immediately to investigate the aforementioned sexual harassment allegations. Moreover, further action seems to have been taken against the latters, although still unofficial. These are major improvements which stand on the shoulders of years of advocacy and to which the current sit-in gave momentum. My interview with Aurélie and Tobias took place before the email arrived, however, when asked about some of the improvements that had already been announced through the media, Aurélie’s comment was: “That is part of the problem. They are attempting to remain in the structure that continues to silence students, which means that us, as a collective of students who feel that they have the agency, who are advocating not just on behalf of the whole institution but on behalf of themselves, we are not being taken seriously because we are not part of that structure? Why can’t I as an individual advocate for something that affects me outside the structure of what they have done which has shown to silence students.” Thus, will institutionally achieved improvements be enough for the occupants of the cafeteria?
The latest development is that the Administration met with the protesters this morning.
*A precisation from the Feministe Collective: the removal was imposed on them by the Graduate Institute’s Communications Department who mentioned that the Collective could, if they wanted, put the posters back after the important event. The Collective never heard from them after the event for an apology or explanation.
You can follow the #stopsilencingstudents movement on Instagram at @stopsilencingstudents