Student Life

Interview with the Directrice of the institute

Governance reforms, IHEID's financial status, her thoughts on GISA and IHEID Union and more - Dr Marie-Laure Salles sits down to speak with The Graduate Press.

The Graduate Press Editorial Board

Almost two years after her assuming charge as the Directrice of Geneva Graduate Institute, Dr Marie-Laure Salles sits down for an interview for the first time with The Graduate Press.

How have things been so far since you took over? 

Let me start by saying that the period since I arrived has been dense and we have been working on many different fronts at the same time. When I accepted this role, obviously, I was not expecting COVID-19 and so the context itself was particular. One of the consequences of COVID was that before I came, the Institute had to make a lot of investment, to  transform the normal classroom experience into online in a very short period of time. There was a lot of financial investment coupled with a decrease in certain sources of revenue. A consequence was that the year I arrived we had a deficit close to CHF 3 million in the budget. A first imperative objective was to go back to budgetary stability because the Institute receives public money and cannot be in deficit. Everybody understood the particularities of the COVID year but this could not become a regular situation. So my first objective was to reestablish budget balance while impacting the least possible our functioning. 

As almost always also when a new director comes in after the previous one has been in place for many years, there was a strong expectation in the community for what amounted to a change of culture. The particular conditions in the fall of 2020 meant that we had very limited face-to-face time. Engaging on a large transformation and a cultural change when you don’t even see people physically is an interesting challenge to say the least!.

One of the first projects we undertook was to launch a collective reflection on our identity as it projects itself in the context of current and future challenges. As you know, the Institute will be 100 years old in 2027. Hence we produced a new Charter that has become the common compass for all the reforms that followed.

We then moved on to work on our flagship program, the MINT program. As you know when I arrived we had two programmes that were at the same time different in principle , but had in fact become increasingly interconnected. One of those two programmes had been connected to HEI, the school that had been founded in 1927 and the other was an inheritance from the IUED (Institut Universitaire d’Etudes du Développement) – those two programmes as you know merged around 15 years ago to give our current Geneva Graduate Institute. Building upon our new Charter and redefined identity, we decided to merge those two programmes into a single coherent one that corresponds to the challenges of today – international collaboration, for peace on the one hand, and development/sustainability, on the other hand. This program has seven specializations including a number of new ones. 

Our next project was the PhD program. We wanted to offer our incoming students the same conditions as are generally found in our competitor schools – four year packages that ensure the capacity to engage into the PhD journey. While we worked on the new financial packages we also made sure to ensure an equitable transition period so that current PhD students would also benefit from these transformations. In particular, we put in place a system of aligning the tuition fees progressively over the next 2-3 years and also improving remuneration for TAs. 

Now we are adding some last-round touches to this restructuring by adding  PhD supervision guidelines that have been developed and written together with PhD students so that we have a set of rules that set guidelines for the interactions between supervisees and supervisors. 

Was bringing Professor Mohammedou as the Deputy Director also a part of your structural reforms?

Yes. 

I like to work with a team. For that you have to have complete trust and really be on the same line. I now have a Direction Committee that is composed on the one hand of an Academic Direction and on the other of an Executive Committee. The Academic Committee deals with Academic Affairs and the Executive Committee with Administrative Affairs – and the two meet once a month to work on common issues. The Director of Studies, the Director of Research, the Director of MINT and the DIrector of Executive Education are all members of the Academic Direction. I have asked Professor Mohamedou to act as Deputy Director to ensure continuity of direction in any situation and to act on my behalf whenever I have other urgent commitments. 

There is considerable criticism among the students on the rebranding. Why now, since  there is a pandemic going on? There are considerable financial constraints for even aspiring students who want to come here and all those things. So how would you respond to these specific things? On the timing alone?

Well, I think the timing could not be better in the sense that this rebranding is a follow-up from all the work on the identity that we have done. And as I said, in different contexts, it’s not a major rebranding. We  have a long history that we are very proud of. But this long history needs to be adapted to current challenges. Once you’ve done this identity work that got translated into the new Charter  you need to adapt the visual and communication dimension. Once you have a new identity, both intellectual and visual and a strategic project that is coherently defined, then you can launch a fundraising campaign to help reach our goals.

Today,  if we want to increase the number of scholarships, if we want to have more faculty on some topics, etc, we need to do fundraising – we do not have any realistic alternatives to finance those kinds of things. With that in mind,having a coherent and attractive  identity is an important first step. Finally, let me reiterate again, that the rebranding itself has been done at very limited costs – it absolutely does not compare with the investments we have put in both the transformation of MINT or the redefined PHD packages for example. 

We are rebranding without redoing what does not need to be redone. For example, new business cards will only be issued when you run out of the old ones, we are not going to redo the old badges, only the new ones, etc… This is something that we will deploy between now and September 2022, in essence, be ready with a new visual identity that corresponds to our new strategy and our new intellectual identity. In my view, communication is not an end in itself but an important tool. Fortunately or unfortunately, we have to admit that visual impact is important in this world. So if we want to build up the reputation of the Institute globally, we have to work also on our visual identity.. 

Sharing the details of the number of scholarships given has been one of the long standing  demands of GISA. Is there any progress on that front, from the administration side? Because it’s been going on for a very long time? So do you have any update on that? 

We keep giving those numbers in terms of aggregate figures for PhDs and Masters programmes. Now we have those Working Groups on many different issues, including the intranet that will be accessible to students and on which all these kinds of information can be shared. So I’m sure that this is part of the discussions happening with your colleagues and my teams. I don’t know exactly where they stand in the discussion yet, but I know that in the first plenary session this was discussed. I personally want transparency and we have to find the ways to ensure it while also ensuring trust on both sides that comes with what is being shared and how. So, for now, we’ve been giving this information very regularly – the aggregate numbers of scholarships given by the Institute – but I know that we can go further. We’ve done it already for our PhD programmes and we’ll do it for the Masters programmes too. 

What are your thoughts on the sit-in protests that happened just before the announcements on Working groups? 

I don’t want to talk about this. For me, this is (the) past. This has been a very strange period, as you can imagine. There have been very strange dynamics, including individual ones I don’t want to comment on.

Are the working groups a result of those protests? 

As I mentioned above, reforming the internal governance of the Institute was on my list of things to do – and that included the ways in which the Direction and the Faculty work with student representatives. Last year with GISA we agreed on the formalization of working channels and that already helped a lot. Last fall, I started to realize that we may be under-using class representatives in our governance scheme. Class representatives are great connectors to the student body including in its diversity connected to the different programs. So enlarging the discussion to them in December came quite naturally. 

In parallel and since last fall when we could come back to face-to-face, I also initiated the student breakfasts and systematically met with all the initiatives who wanted to meet with me. This has also been an extremely helpful way to connect with larger numbers of students. 

The Interim Governance and the associated working groups have been created as temporary bodies to accelerate the work on key issues – the themes of the working group were identified in the first meeting of the plenary Interim Governance.. In the next meetings of the Interim Governance we will take up the question of what next. Do we keep this kind of governance in a more institutionalized form or do we revise it? I am open to whatever will come from those discussions.

Were the changes to Antenne-H also decided before the protests? Or was it something that happened due to the sit-in? 

I / we started to work on Antenne H in the spring of 2021, so well before the protests. 

One of the first things that happened when I arrived at the Institute was the formal approval in the Collège des Enseignants of the Code of Conduct, which had been co-written by students and theDirector of Studies. When I read that Code of Conduct I clearly felt that it was far from sufficient. I also then looked at our Antenne H system as it stood then and also saw that this was not satisfactory as it was in particular completely internal. 

As part of us receiving public funds from the canton, we have a compulsory HR audit periodically and it started in the fall of 2020. They looked at everything, including Antenne H, which was in fact very useful for me. In fact, as a newcomer, they helped me understand what was wrong or was not wrong, what was good, what was less good in terms of managing Human Resources at the Institute, including anti-harassment. 

So when they gave us their report by the end of March 2021, they had an assessment of Antenne-H, which totally confirmed my initial judgment. So that’s when we started working on a new system. We started  by looking at other institutions in Switzerland and elsewhere and how they dealt with this. We also had consultations with lawyers and HR specialists so that they could give us their advice. So, by June 2021, we had started working on first professionalizing the internal team and identifying the contours of an external system. We met potential external referents in the fall of 2021 and by the end of November we had in fact a system that was more or less ready – as I had just signed the contracts with the external Personne de Confiance and the external Enquêtrice – who were initially supposed to start working in early february 2022. 

So the only thing that happened because of the sit-in was the acceleration by two months of a process that was already ready to go.  Instead of having it start in the beginning of February 2022, we started in December 2021. We were lucky that the external persons could  agree to step in right away. Hence, in summary, I have been working on this issue ever since I arrived, more or less. I am happy that the Institute is investing significantly in this new system (as an aside it costs us obviously much more than the logo and rebranding) – it is an important and much needed development for all of us. 

We seem to be having two student groups now – GISA and IHEID Union. How are you planning to approach both these groups? 

I don’t even know who is actually behind the IHEID Union. At least not officially, as all their communications remain anonymous. So, what can I say? On the one hand, we have legitimate representatives of the student body as convened now in the Interim Governance, GISA and AdA Board members and class representatives, a group with whom we are working very effectively and efficiently and making a lot of progress on concrete issues.  And on the other hand, we have an anonymous entity that appropriated without legitimacy the name IHEID union and has been mostly involved in anonymous communication, most of which has been spreading disinformation. I don’t think I need to add much!

GISA is political (because they endorse movements – BDS and Ukraine solidarity). In the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Institute’s stance and GISA’s stance were quite similar. But that hasn’t always been the case, for example in BDS. How do you see this difference? 

Well, that’s a discussion we had with GISA already last year . One of their key roles is to be a representative of all students and it is very important to have a student body that really is representative of students and of ‘all’ students. I don’t personally have a problem with GISA being political. But it is important to reflect on how this can and should happen. 

The moment you start being political, which, from what I understand, is quite recent, how do you ensure that it does not endanger the first mission, which is being representative, a safe space representative of all students? And in a sense, I’m putting it back to GISA because it is mostly GISA and the student body’s problem.  Finding a solution (to this) is in GISA’s hands. More than GISA (board) in fact, it’s really in students hands, it’s you as a community of students, how do you find the right balance? 

Today, saying that the aggression of Russia is really unacceptable, it’s not a big deal (for many). And I think that a lot of people tend to agree with it, but in other cases, it is going to be a big deal. And we can actually point to many geopolitical issues across the world. I think it’s still on the table for students to deal with. How do we reconcile these two functions? For me, the first function has to be really important. If we want to work together, if we want to really improve this governance, this collective governance, this involvement of students in the different dimensions of the Institute, we have to have a place that is, in that sense, relatively neutral, and very, very broadly representative (which is GISA). 

What are your immediate plans for the upcoming year? 

We are working on a big transformation including the governance of the faculty and PhD reforms which we hope to finish this semester. 

And for next year, the big priorities are fundraising so that we can improve the number of scholarships. We will also need to recruit professors, teachers, researchers, developing our competence on topics like digital technologies and their impact on democracy, environment, etc because for students it’s also going to be very important in the coming years. 

We need to also transform our disciplinary programmes. So we will be working on them. And then the other big project will be to finish what we have started  with the Working Groups. Hopefully, we can finish part of it this semester, but some of them will be taking a bit more time. We’ll, hopefully, have a process by the end of June that allows students to be involved in the life of the residence and the governance  on a more regular and institutionalized basis. 

The Research Centers we have now were created 10-12 years ago. Now the challenge would be to create more synergies between the centers. All of these would be collaborative processes with a lot of discussion. 

I think another big challenge for next year will be one of space, about organising the space in Maison de la Paix, rethinking where different services need to be, creating two more classrooms, etc. We need more classrooms and are creating two more classrooms on the ground floor. We also want to rethink the ways in which the space will be  open for  students. 

Just curious, have you made progress in terms of achieving that financial stability? 

Yes, we have made significant progress.

One of the first things I did was renegotiate the interest rates on the loans of the Institute – which has amounted to a structural yearly gain of CHF600000. This is a huge amount of money. So that was one of the big steps to reestablish the financial balance. 

And the other step, obviously, was that the whole investment on the online tools, etc. This was a one time investment. And then our Executive Education programmes have started again, so the revenues from those have gone up. So all this together means that we are fine. We’ve managed stability  this year (2021) and it looks like we can manage in 2022 too. But if we want to do new things or have more fellowships or more Faculty Chairs, we do need to look for new sources of money – hence the necessity for a fundraising campaign.

1 comment on “Interview with the Directrice of the institute

  1. Pingback: “We asked for compliance with the Swiss labour law, instead, we got more precarious contracts”— IHEID Teaching Assistants Protest on May 1 – The Graduate Press

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