This has been a contentious year on campus, with students raising concerns on issues ranging from a library restructuring cloaked in secrecy to the ethical investment of Harvard’s endowment. Graduate and undergraduate activists have achieved important victories such as a fairer custodial contract and divestment from HEI Hotels & Resorts, but graduate students have been largely forced to work outside the established channels of student representation in voicing their concerns. While the Undergraduate Council proposal for a Harvard University Forum for Change gained widespread student group support, it was not embraced by the University, leaving the UC with a one-off meeting last semester at which graduate students were not included. We write as candidates for the Graduate Student Council Executive Committee, running along with others who share our vision, because graduate students deserve real democratic representation. The current executive board led by President Cammi Valdez has failed to provide the leadership and vision we want to bring to the GSC.
In our early years of graduate study in Psychology and History, we shared a common concern that the graduate student voice was missing. When each of us asked friends and classmates about the GSC and its open meetings, we were told that they were meaningless gatherings for the rubber-stamping of student group funding. Rather than join them in dismissing it, we decided, at different stages, to engage. While we entered with optimism, the current leadership has left us disillusioned.
After a year of service on the Executive Committee alongside seasoned incumbents, and repeated attempts to spur change from within, we are forced to conclude that a change in leadership is necessary. Three examples will illustrate why. Firstly, Summer Shafer put forward a resolution condemning violence against student protestors. The Undergraduate Council unanimously condemned the violence, but the GSC executive board, led by President Cammi Valdez, wanted to have nothing to do with this simple message of solidarity and support for free speech. The current leadership claimed that such statements were not the job of the GSC (though the GSC constitution clearly authorizes such resolutions), and attempted to limit debate by allowing only five minutes for representatives to debate the issue. Valdez refused opportunities to extend the open meeting at which it was discussed. Despite all the obstruction and opposition of the current executive board, the assembled GSC representatives passed the resolution condemning campus violence by a wide margin, indicating a broad consensus of graduate student opinion behind it. Unsurprisingly, the Executive Board failed to properly publicize the resolution even after the GSC representatives had decisively overruled their opposition, and still refuse demands to publish the voting record of representatives.
Next came the issue of changes to the GSC constitution. Concerns have been highlighted by a past GSC parliamentarian, including the absence of an election of departmental representatives, a direct election of Officers, and a procedure for GSAS-wide voting on resolutions for issues of concern. Instead of tackling these challenges and making the GSC more democratic, the current leadership used a constitutional committee of which we were members to focus on correcting such minor issues as wording and numbering, leaving no time to consider governance reforms. The only substantive amendments presented at open meetings have been aimed to constrict, not expand, democracy in the GSC—an unobtainable quorum for debates on future resolutions that could be used as a gag rule, a proposal to limit the right to speak at meetings to those who have paid their $25 membership fee, and a rule limiting eligibility for the office of President to those already on the Executive Committee, which risks institutionalizing a pattern of insider cronyism at the GSC.
Lastly, we are fed up with the absence of any effort to obtain more meaningful student input to GSC decision-making. Neither we as at-large representatives, nor the graduate students we represent, have once been asked for suggestions for agenda items at board, sub-committee or deans’ meetings, all of which we have been told are at the discretion of the President. Partly thanks to the insistence of one of us, an email channel to all GSAS students was finally opened, but it remains jealously guarded.
We believe that reform of the Graduate Student Council, the voice of the thousands of graduate students at Harvard, is possible and necessary. We know we can help it become a representative body that advocates on live issues of student concern, such as a health plan that meets the needs of all students, fair contracts for graduate student research assistants in the natural sciences, and a tax exemption for graduate student stipends—issues fought for by student governments in other top universities. In order to achieve these goals, graduate students, like all Harvard students, need leadership that is committed to democratic and inclusive principles. Without this, our achievements will remain limited by our struggle simply to be heard.
Jennifer A. Sheehy-Skeffington is a third year doctoral student in Psychology and the at-large representative for International Students at the Graduate Student Council. Summer A. Shafer is a third year doctoral student in History of American Civilizations, and the co-at-large representative for Interdisciplinary Studies at the Graduate Student Council.