GSC and Democratic Engagement

The Harvard Graduate Student Council recently made news with a resounding vote in favor of a resolution that proclaims solidarity with nonviolent protesters at the University of California and condemns the use of violence against students on campuses everywhere. This resolution passed 29-9 at a widely publicized meeting of the GSC, which took place in Dudley House on February 1st.

Many members of the GSC stated that the meeting at which the resolution was proposed, and the subsequent meeting at which it was debated, were the best attended and most engaging meetings they had ever seen at the GSC. Indeed, the passage of this resolution followed almost two months of deliberation, during which GSC representatives were asked to bring the resolution to students in their departments and programs to solicit opinions, and, where necessary, to conduct a student vote on it. The resulting public statement represents a reinvigorated notion of graduate student government that has been dormant for too long.

Contrasting with this vision, Dahianna Lopez and Laura McDaniel wrote in their February 3 op-ed that the primary purpose of the GSC is “to allocate research and travel grants supported by the mandatory $25 fee assessed to every resident GSAS student in the fall of each academic year.” Though this may characterize the primary activity of the GSC in recent years, it is not the Council’s primary function. In fact, it does not even appear in the “Objects and Purposes” section of the GSC Constitution. Instead, this section opens by stating the role of the GSC: “to serve as the official representative body of the students of GSAS; to provide a forum for discussion of issues internal and external of concern to graduate students; to represent graduate student interests before the Harvard faculty and administration.” In fact, Lopez and McDaniel are also incorrect in stating that the $25 fee is mandatory, as it can be waived by any graduate student as long as this is requested in writing at the start of the year.

Their letter does, however, open an important conversation about the organization and structure of the GSC. The debate over the GSC’s latest resolution demonstrates that not only were most GSC representatives not elected in the first place, but many representatives also did not even know how to communicate with the students they were appointed to represent!

I was engaged with the GSC in various capacities for a long time (2006 – 2010). As a former executive board officer of the GSC, who has previously held responsibility for constitutional affairs at the Council, I am well aware of the undemocratic and ineffective nature of its structure and function. For example, the GSC president, vice-president, and secretary, to name a few, are not elected by graduate students in general, but by a handful of representatives, who form less than two percent of GSC membership. This may be news to undergraduates and the general Harvard community used to the participatory nature of the Undergraduate Council elections, where issues close to the undergraduate community become part of competing campaigns’ platforms. The fact that the GSC has allowed its democratic credentials to slip and its focus to narrow to that of a mere channel for funds puts it in shameful standing alongside comparable student councils in the country, and alongside the truly active organization that this month’s debate has showed it can be.

Even the GSC fee is a symbol of its undemocratic nature, as this represents an increase of 25 percent that was voted on at a meeting in the spring of 2011 with very poor attendance. Why would so few representatives turn up to vote on an issue as important as a 25 percent increase in an annual fee, to be levied on all Harvard graduate students? Because that crucial meeting was held on the Longwood campus, far away from the eyes of the vast majority of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students who may have opposed it. The upcoming meeting will also be held at Longwood.

The resolution proposed for discussion at the March meeting of the GSC is of profound importance to the future of the Council. If it fails, the GSC may be robbed of the ability to make any public statements on issues that don’t uniquely relate to graduate students. What about the university health plan, library hours, or recreational facilities? As these issues apply to more than just graduate students, rejection of this resolution gags the Council from commenting on any of these important issues. Lopez and McDaniel try to frighten readers by bringing up resolutions that have nothing to do with graduate student affairs, without noting that such issues, unlike that debated on this month, clearly fall outside of the realm of the GSC as defined by its constitution.

I call on the GSC to delay its vote on this important resolution until it can be held at a meeting that most of its members can attend. To attempt to use low attendance in order to overturn a resolution voted on with huge attendance is subversive to the democratic spirit, and betrays an unnecessary fear of the political, as if that weren’t what student government were all about. I also invite all graduate students to attend monthly meetings from here on, and to offer your voice as to what your council might mean to you.

Garga Chatterjee, PhD '11, is a non-resident tutor in Winthrop House.

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