By Anna Liz Thomas
This is the fourth in a series of interviews that have been collected from some of the outgoing members of the GISA Board. The first and second of these interviews can be found here, here and here. These interviews are not meant to reflect the individuals holding these positions. Rather, they are a way to contain institutional memory: of what it means to represent students at the Institute.
What would you say is the role of the GISA board?
The GISA board works in tandem with different groups of students to advocate their demands to the administration. It’s a lot of different cogs in a machine. Each has its own function, but effectively, I’m the person who is supposed to bind them together and create efficiency. So what the board does effectively is all of us present agendas based on ongoing demands to the administration. Last year, for instance, our major demand was transparency. Other than that, the Board also eases the work of the administration. The treasurer is responsible for the finances of all the Initiatives. The VP for Masters’ is responsible for coming up with solutions and ideas to student issues such as extensions and the internship credits for MADIS students
The last three VPs PhD worked with the Institute for the whole PhD reform.. So we quintessentially continue working over the years, but also building new projects for the future boards to come. I started two projects. One was a sign language workshop, which will probably start in the summer, and another project to make the Institute more disabled friendly.
Without us, the Institute’s work is heavier. Without an Events person or a Treasurer, or the Specialised committees, it is a lot of work for the Institute to manage and handle, so we are a good link between students and them.
There were times when the GISA Board was going above and beyond their mandate. For instance, in the context of sanitary product dispensers, last year GISA was also working to ensure they were working and well-stocked. My question is whether there are times when GISA is doing work that the administration should actually be doing?
Yes, it happens that we are responsible for these things. For example, we have an annual survey that GISA formulates, and shares with the Institute. This should ideally come from the Institute. Often because it comes from us, students do not respond and whatever finite responses we get cannot be representative of the entire student body. So these things should ideally come from the Institute. On the subject of sanitary napkins, that’s something I am okay with. This was a collaboration between GISA and the Institute. It’s the Institute’s responsibility, but I feel like it is also ours to make sure the project doesn’t stop.
Could you maybe discuss the differences between student unions, like the CUAE at UniGE and the work that’s done by the GISA Board?
Hmm, I think being a student union gives them a little more power and agency, and recognition in some way. Also UniGE is a public college, so their student union rights are different. We are a private institution,
Effectively they can demand things from the Canton. For example, the whole pricing of food was something they took upto the cantonal level and they could do that. We unfortunately can’t, because of our private structure. We can make demands, and there’s a letter being written to the Canton, but the process is more different for us. The Institute is very open about the fact that its foundation is private, and it receives subsidies from the Swiss government and the Canton. It makes a difference in terms of us being a union or an association. We can’t expect them to change rules overnight.
So what’s happening with respect to the process of joining the Swiss Students’ Union?
When it was proposed in the General Assembly last fall. I don’t remember who proposed it, but it was a very ill-thought out proposal because there was no information on what being part of the Union would entail. There was no clarity on the fiscal connotations, and power distributions.
So I want to push the decision to the following semester. The current batch will then have been here for a year. and the new students would be here too. Us making a decision on a) something I am extremely uncomfortable with, because our batch will not be here but will make the decision for a future cohort ; and b) something that is a long-term decision for students who may not be aware or may not be interested. I believe one can change their opinion if there is more information available. When I spoke to the Swiss Student Union, the charge for being a Swiss student Union member is about 2-4 CHF per year, per student. In addition there are costs for mandatorily attending the two General Assemblies they hold each year, which all take place in Bern over two days, for which two GISA members would have to go, one being the President, and the other being a translator since these meetings take place in German and French. This would not be cheap, where two of us go every time, stay the night at some place, spend money and come back. There’s already so many student initiatives, and us doing this would mean lesser funding for the Initiatives.
So. At the end, it’s going to be open to students to know what the pros of joining a Swiss Student union are. If they agree to the financial cost of it, then we will join the union. But I want them to be sure when they make a financial decision that they understand where the money is being spent and what it entails, and if it gives us any benefits, and if we are willing to adhere to their norms.
The next date for enrolment with the Union is in September, which I think is a better time because the new students will be here and will probably be able to weigh in better.
Something we’ve heard often is that the GISA Board’s role is to advocate on behalf of the students to the administration. Can you provide examples in your tenure where this advocacy has resulted in tangible outcomes and examples where advocacy has failed?
The Master’s thesis extension, where we offered two options in terms of a semester-long extension and a two-month extension, and we received a two-week extension. I am proud of the VP master’s for this.
We had tried really hard to get going on the Antenne-H process. We were told that they had revamped the system. Antenne-H is supposed to be obsolete, and now there’s the ombudswoman.
The sanitary napkin dispenser was something I was really happy with. Students wanted it, and it actually ended up being installed at no cost for students. I refused to give GISA’s funds for something the Institute should be responsible for.
Other than that they have started being more transparent with scholarships now in terms of wanting to share the information on the website, or they will do so in the future on the intranet. This is great, because it initially used to come to us as an email that we shared to students. Now with the intranet they are planning to make it even more transparent in terms of access to information on numbers of scholarships received and data on fee waivers.
I was happy with the disabled-friendly cell. Laurent Neury brought together different individuals from the Institute from the Admin, the IT, the library, and me from GISA, and we got together to discuss how to make the Institute more disabled-friendly. I’m really happy that they were willing to accept that things aren’t right, and were willing to work to improve things for those with disabilities. I even formed a disability cell of students to work with the institute but the progress on it has been slow.
Even the cafeteria meals, and getting the price reduced was a successful initiative by the Environmental Committee.
In terms of failures?
The trifecta of housing, GISA and admin has not worked out well. The position for residence assistants was passed during the General Assembly last spring. I tried speaking to the housing administration throughout summer about this, and getting some momentum on this, especially because Grand Morillon was going to go from having 150 students to 700 students, which is a lot of responsibilities. But that never solidified into anything. I felt bad about it, but there were delays because they were waiting for a property director. But even that took about six more months until September.
As this didn’t work out,we thought of the housing union as a way to help students out. But that also has been a bit disappointing. When we scheduled a meeting for the housing union, only a handful of students would turn up. How would this work? You cannot expect us to do everything without your support or suggestions. GISA represents the students, but we cannot take care of housing on our own. But also when we are trying to establish something, the lack of student effort in most parts is concerning.
One of the main reasons why I left the Initiatives group chat in December was because there was so much unverified information being spoken about GISA that it is hard to divulge so much time and energy on personal space because it takes a toll on you. After the press release, no one came and asked us if the information about GISA was true, and no one came to verify this with us when things were happening. GISA supported the demands for the sit-in, but in the break, the IHEID “union” sent an email to students about GISA being undemocratic, and pseudo-representative or something etc, and a bunch of students emailed us angrily about why we were not reacting to the claims of this article. Most of the board was quite shocked about it, but honestly, sometimes it is best to just do your job and let critics be critics because there was nothing constructive that was offered. Expecting GISA officers to have had prior experience or training is exclusionary to those who are passionate and have leadership abilities. To say that French should be necessary to be a member is tone-deaf in an international institution which itself has no issue with languages. I speak five languages in India but not knowing enough French has not stopped me from being anything I wanted.
I have been stretched to my limits over the past one year, and my whole presidency has been about putting out fires. It was a great learning experience, and I got to do a lot of great events, too. But I have been through so many disruptions and challenges while also being a disciplinary master’s student that I only hope that whoever takes over next knows what is in store for them.
That leads into my next question. I’m aware that GISA meetings are public, but people do not attend unless they have something to say. Participation at townhalls, which was part of your platform while running for President, also has limited participation rates. Even General Assemblies have higher participation if discussion involves a highly debated subject, like the BDS Vote.
My question is what do you think are the issues that prevent students from participating or engaging with the GISA board and what do you think can be done about it?
I think the reason last year’s General Assembly assembly was so well attended was because of BDS and the voting mechanism before we updated it in last fall’s GA. I actually think that was good because it meant students were active. It meant they were interested in something. But not everything is political, BDS was a political issue which was important to be discussed. I think there is a general lack of interest that students have in GISA, or student advocacy. I do not think most people realise the necessity of student politics. People dismiss GISA, and think it’s not something that deserves giving time to. People think they are just one among a thousand others, and therefore them not going would not make a big difference. But if 800 others feel like that on the same day, it comes down to just 200 people voting.
Think about the fact that no one really discussed the workings of the Welfare Committee for the longest time. But on that date of impeachment of the former WC President, 70 students showed up in the middle of January for an online meeting.
I have been very vocal about the borderline bullying and harassment that a handful of students sometimes do, and this constant sense of pushing us to our edges without really working with us. With the racial discrimination last year, I was done putting up with attacks. The mental health costs are apparent. It is a lot of work. While the waiver might be a good motivation for some, you should understand that the waiver exists because this is as good as doing a day job. I’m effectively doing 20+ hours of GISA work each week. there is this antagonistic tone around GISA. Everyone likes to hate on us, but no one appreciates the small things we do, and the work that really benefits them.
Involving students has been hard. We have tried through town halls and general assemblies, the housing union, the Masters’ forum and the PhD Forum. The first townhall was a mixed bag. Many new students had ideas on course evaluations, and questions about insurance, and making it better, but the general environment was so hostile due to a handful of students that we ended up getting pushed around at our own town hall. That’s the whole reason I did not want a town hall for the longest time. It was traumatic. This is something we discuss at GISA meetings, in terms of how we can involve students better, and get students to take more initiative. We are open to suggestions, since we have run out of ideas at this point.
The lack of student involvement has also translated into the setting up of advocacy groups in parallel. What sorts of benefits or risks does this present in relation to GISA’s advocacy with the administration?
I think when it comes to the Direction and Admin, they are very clear that the only student bodies that they recognize and work with are GISA and AdA. While most of GISA was okay with the demands being made to the Institution, these fringe bodies that come up, can also be volatile. But there is a difference between critiquing us and outright trashing us. The second thing is, when we met the Foundation Board, they were concerned. While they also said that GISA would be the only body they recognised and talked to, they also said that we have to find a way to strengthen our association and its representativity.
Sometimes I think it is the lack of communication that can often lead to anger. For instance, recently I was told that there were posters that were put up across the professors’ desks asking to boycott an event where this Israeli professor was coming to speak, which had the GISA logo, and the BDS logo. Now GISA had supported the BDS movement, since the student body had wholeheartedly supported this movement with a historic vote, but we would have appreciated being told before this (poster) had been done. We had no idea. Because when the Institute questions us in this context, then we have no answers. This creates so much of a rift between people who are on the same side. The hostility that a few students show us through emails, and the way they talk to us, it just makes you realise that you cannot make everybody happy.
And how do you think parallel groupings will affect students?
I think students should feel free to make their demands to us, but if these are demands that are not done through a recognised representative body, I do not know how the Institute will react. There’s a big chance they may not pay attention, or if push comes to shove, then they will talk to them. But there is no guarantee or assurance about which way it could go, because it’s up to the Institute. It would be their decision to entertain these demands. But if any student comes to us with a demand, and we present this demand then it makes sense for them and the Institute to pay heed to this. This is literally our job.
Is there one integral part of your work as GISA President that you would like to showcase?
I’d like to showcase the sheer amount of talks, negotiations and ideations with the Institute that I go through on a weekly basis. I would say my volume of meetings are reduced now, that I am nearing the end of my term. But it’s the whole constant effort of making sure that students’ needs are being addressed and are being presented to the Institute, and working with them on new ideas. Designing surveys for students in terms of what they want from the Institute. All of this is a small part of the bigger things such as making sure there is peace between the Student Initiatives, and that things remain smooth even within the Board functions a little more.
Keeping the Board together is a big responsibility, because the President does take the final call, but I do not see the Board as a hierarchy but as a unit. Whoever comes next will need to understand that you will have to find ways to make the Board work together. I also went through a lot of personal trauma in the last one year. And in a way I feel like whoever takes a GISA position should know that any position will take up a lot of time. So you have to be ready to be the silent hero. A lot of my work is silently done, in terms of pushing things in motion. I was happy about being able to push a lot of information and orientations out for new students when they arrived. I had wanted this when I joined the Institute, when I had no idea about different initiatives or the different insurance mechanisms. I was happy about making new students more aware of things, and this is something I was really proud of. I had fun doing these things as a President, I enjoyed working with the disability cell, collaborating to plan the Diversity month, and the sign language workshop mechanism with the Institute. It was a lot of work, but I had fun, you know, knowing that it’s going to make a lot of difference in the way students are going to benefit. Most importantly, I think working as President is largely about how to approach the Institute, how to talk with the Direction, and how to set a rapport with them. We can’t be hostile. We had a rough summer patch with the Institution, and we did not want a repeat of that.
If there was one thing you would like to change a) about the GISA Board and b) the Institute, what would it be?
For the Board, it’s very important to learn how to communicate, and not just professionally, but personally too because we are all very diverse. I’ve tried very hard to maintain that balance with everyone, because sparks have flown a lot in the Board. It’s about knowing that you have to be a little more understanding of the other person’s limits or understand where they come from. So I think communication is something which needs to change. And at the same time, I feel like there should be more student ad hoc committees within the board. I know that students will not come forward for this because we cannot assure the tuition waiver for it. With the current poor response to things, I am not sure how it will work out. I would suggest that the Board finds a way to outsource some of their work to ad hoc committees that can handle things. These roles also encompass activities that we already do, so it is not exactly like we need the specific role. It is just that it would reduce the mental effort that goes into this. Because if students are keen on helping, this could be useful.
With the Institute, I think the Institute needs to be a little more flexible with a few things. For instance allowing students to drop courses, and take others. That flexibility needs to be more fluid. It can often be a long process where you get redirected across multiple departments. It would help for more clarity from the Institute on whom to approach for which different processes.
Picture credits: Kobu Agency at unsplash.com