Students occupy the Graduate Institute demanding reform

Students have occupied the cafeteria of la Maison de la Paix in Geneva to demand reform of the Graduate Institute's management. (Credit: Geneva Solutions)

Student allegations of exclusion from decision-making processes, mishandling of sexual harassment claims and of being silenced when they speak up are shaking Geneva’s Graduate Institute. The director rebukes the claims and says all the issues are already being addressed.

A group of students has been occupying the cafeteria of the Maison de la Paix, home to the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) since Wednesday at 2pm and they’re planning on staying until their demands are heard.

The 15 to 20 protesters decry a vertical governance system at the private foundation. “Students have not been given proper representation and a meaningful voice at the institute to the same degree as at other Swiss universities,” said Aurelie Semunovic, one of the students organising the protest.

Semunovic told Geneva Solutions there have been alleged sexual harassment claims but students are afraid to come forward through a reporting mechanism they say lacks independence.

The topic was raised by a couple of students during a town hall meeting on Wednesday morning before the sit-in began, but some students felt the answers were not clear enough.

Director of the institute, Marie-Laure Salles, who took over the reins of the institute in September 2020, told Geneva Solutions that the reporting system in place indeed was “not satisfactory” due to it being “mostly internal” and potentially leading to a “conflict of interest”.

Salles said that she had already taken steps to fix the issue and had already hired an external mediator to receive sexual harassment complaints at the institute in order to strengthen the independence of the process.

“I was planning to announce that she would start at the beginning of the semester but we’re accelerating the process. We've just received confirmation that she can start on Monday instead of the end of January,” she added.

According to a survey conducted by the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA), 5.8 per cent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment from a member of the institute’s community.

The protesters also denounced that teaching assistants were getting paid under minimum wage, earning less than CHF16,000 a year.

Commenting on this issue, Salles said that she had met on Wednesday morning with the Assistants Association (ADA) and the GISA to put forward a proposition that would raise the salaries to the level of the University of Geneva, adding that there were ongoing discussions to address remaining issues pertaining to social welfare benefits.

The GISA has not publicly supported the sit-in, which the protesters said was out of fear of reprisals, claiming that the association has been threatened with losing their funding from the institute.

Salles stressed that the “students who are doing the sit-in are not in any way representing any of the two official associations, neither the ADA or the GISA”.

“These are issues on which we have been working for a while, and we have been making significant progress,” she said.

The protesters said that they were prepared to continue occupying the building up to the holidays if necessary. A petition supporting the sit-in had gathered around 150 signatures by Thursday evening, according to the organisers.

Dario de Quarti, co-editor of the Graduate Press, who was present at the town hall meeting, told Geneva Solutions that while he viewed there was a “general dissatisfaction” from the student body, particularly on financial issues and worry around tuition fees, it was not necessarily to the same degree as the protesters.