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Harvard GSAS Student Council Discusses Constitutional Changes, Raises Disenfranchisement Concerns

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Student Council, which serves as the representative body of Harvard GSAS students, held its monthly open meeting on Wednesday.
The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Student Council, which serves as the representative body of Harvard GSAS students, held its monthly open meeting on Wednesday. By Amanda Y. Su
By Andrew Park, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Student Council discussed potential constitutional changes during monthly open meeting on Wednesday, spurring debate over potential issues of power consolidation and alleged lack of voting rights.

During a preliminary vote on the tentative language of the amendments at Wednesday’s meeting, the Council voted unanimously in favor of the proposed changes, excluding abstentions. The Council will vote upon and ratify the final changes in the April open meeting, according to GSC Vice President Jessica Chen.

The revisions include changing the chair of support, who is “responsible for allocating funds in both the conference grants as well as January@GSAS,” to a co-chair position overseen by the treasurer; allowing the president to appoint the Council’s adviser; making traveling scholars mandatory members who must pay the GSC student fee of $25; authorizing the parliamentarian to lead the Constitutional Revision Committee; and allowing committee chairs to appoint representatives as required.

During the meeting, participants also discussed the current lack of attendance of multiple program representatives.

“In the past, we’ve had a requirement for students to show up, which is why we had a lot more attendance,” GSC President Zachary Lim said. “One of the reasons why we removed the requirements was because we wanted people to come because they had something to share.”

In response to Lim, Aaron B. Benavidez, program representative for Sociology, said attendance was more “robust” before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People were a bit more politically conscious, or at least, there was more fervor, more enthusiasm than maybe what we are experiencing now,” Benavidez said.

He also argued that allowing the president to appoint the adviser of the Council could consolidate power in the presidency.

“We can imagine a world where there’s a president this year, and then the president next year decides to appoint that person, even though that person might be unfavorable to GSC members,” Benavidez said. “We’re actually truncating political power even for people in the room.”

Meeting participants also discussed changes to the election process passed in October, including a move to an online platform. The new constitutional language excludes officers from voting, while continuing to allow all other elected members to cast a vote.

Benavidez said he believes the current system does not sufficiently address barriers to participation in student government.

“On one hand, we’re expanding fiscal responsibility to include all students including traveling scholars, while at the same time really not taking seriously this idea of universal enfranchisement and the right to vote for every student,” he said.

Sarah Y. Hoback, program representative for Physics and a first-year graduate student, said she prefers a system where all present participants can vote if the process to become an eligible voting member is highly competitive.

Benavidez said this method may present fairness issues due to “some barriers to attendance” in person, such as the distance between the Longwood campus and the main campus, as well as some members’ responsibility to care for young children.

Citing emails, posters, and social media — such as the GSAS Slack — Lim said the Council is actively trying to drive further engagement.

“I don’t think it would be a fair assessment, based on the work that we’ve done, that we’ve been trying to curtail any kind of participation,” he said.

Still, he said that many students possibly “don’t see enough things being done” to justify engagement with the Council.

“For many years, I think the GSC has failed to address certain needs that are very important,” Lim said.

Closing out the discussion on election policies, Lim further said that the current system has continued because “it’s just the easier thing to do.”

“We are already completely underwater, on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “And I don’t know if we have the capacity to revisit creating a whole new system.”

Corrections: April 3, 2023

A previous version of this article stated the incorrect middle initial for Aaron B. Benavidez.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that attendees voted unanimously for the proposals during a preliminary vote. In fact, some attendees abstained from the vote.

Clarification: April 3, 2023

This article has been updated to clarify that under the current system, all elected members of the Graduate Student Council are permitted to vote.

Correction: April 10, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the constitutional change excluding officers from voting was currently under consideration. In fact, this change was passed in an October meeting.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Benavidez said the proposed changes limited student participation. In fact, Benavidez said that the current system does not sufficiently address barriers to student participation.

—Staff writer Andrew Park can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewParkNews.

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