When he ran for the Graduate Student Council (GSC), John Coffey ’19 M.A. ’20 jokingly pledged that he would replace Structured Liberal Education with a falconry program to eat caterpillars on campus. The former Comedy Club president with a self-described “contempt for student government” received 12 votes and eventually joined the GSC.
During his one-year tenure on the GSC, Coffey introduced resolutions to dissolve the Undergraduate Senate and to create a COVID-19 relief fund by selling calendars of President Marc Tessier-Lavigne shirtless. Neither passed.
“My thought process going into every meeting was, ‘I want to say something so ridiculous, but still not offensive that it will expose how ridiculous the entire body and process is,’” Coffey said.
The fact that a joke candidate could become a councilor is a symptom of the larger issues plaguing the GSC. The decentralization of different graduate programs, coupled with a communication bottleneck, has resulted in a perennial struggle to gain awareness and active participation within the council — a problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to former and current councilors.
With the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) election voting period approaching on Thursday, only 10 candidates will be on the ballot for 15 open positions. When slots are not filled during the election, GSC leadership will sometimes reach out to individuals and ask them to join the council, according to Kari Barclay, GSC co-chair and fifth-year theater and performance studies Ph.D. student.
The uphill battle toward increased efficacy and representation for graduate students is widely acknowledged among those familiar with the council, but perceptions of the causes and necessary solutions differ. While some, like Coffey, think that there needs to be an institutional overhaul within the ASSU for the GSC to fulfill its potential, others believe that the path forward involves increasing outreach to graduate students and building awareness.
According to GSC councilor and fourth-year communication Ph.D. student Sanna Ali, it is difficult to achieve a high level of awareness in the spread-out graduate school community, where student ages and personal situations can vary widely.
“I’ve talked to so many grad students who don’t even know what ASSU is,” Ali said. “They think it’s like a club.”
“I think people don’t see the fruits of our labor, and so they’re not super interested,” she added.
Limited decision-making power
While much of the GSC’s work happens behind the scenes, the council attempts to maximize its positive role in the community even when the initiatives sometimes run into walls, according to Barclay.
“There are limits to the power of what we can do,” Barclay said. “But these are things that we actually think benefit students, and it matters for us to be here to discuss that. I think the work that we do is important.”
According to GSC co-chair Will Paisley ’20 M.A. ’21, some of the roadblocks facing the GSC can be attributed to the tripartite University governance structure, consisting of the Board of Trustees, University administration and the Faculty Senate. That decentralization can be difficult to get things done as a council — an issue against which councilors have spoken out time and again over the past year.
“It takes months and months, eons back and forth for these institutional decisions to be made and for any changes to really occur,” Paisley said. “It’s very hard to move the needle.”
Actively communicating with administrators and decision-makers has been a key part of the GSC’s efforts this year to establish a link between student perspectives and University decisions. At Wednesday meetings, representatives from Residential & Dining Enterprises have routinely provided updates to the council and fielded questions and concerns from councilors or students in attendance.
The GSC co-chairs also regularly speak with Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell and are arranging a meeting with the whole council. However, building a productive relationship with the administration has been a long road, and students have often felt like they don’t have a voice in decision-making, according to Jamie Fine, a fourth year Ph.D. student in modern thought and literature who is currently running for the GSC and co-chairs ASSU Graduate Student Advisory Committee. These concerns have led to apathy within the graduate community toward student government, Fine said.
“There’s a problem with the way that we’re running this,” Fine said. “Speaking to other graduate students, my guess is that they’re not even trying to participate because they don’t feel like it’s actually doing anything because the administration is not listening.”
Fine added that the attitude toward student government within the graduate community is stifling: “It’s not something that’s considered a value to advisors. It’s considered a distraction.”
Coffey said that in order to gain viability and realize its full potential, the GSC needs to prioritize changing that perception. But, he believes, a revamp won’t be achieved through gradual improvements.
“The only way to get there is to make the institution such a joke that they need to revamp the entire thing,” Coffey said. “Then just start focusing on rebuilding themselves back up into focusing on real impactful student issues.”
Mobilizing participation within the international graduate community poses additional challenges, according to current GSC councilor and former co-chair Yiqing Ding, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering from China.
Aside from their studies and research, many international students — who comprise approximately one-third of all graduate students — spend much of their extra energy within their own community organizations, according to Ding. While Ding has encouraged fellow Chinese international students to run for the GSC, he said the language barrier and lack of understanding of how the council can serve international student interests are obstacles to greater participation.
Ding said that he believes it is part of a larger disconnect between University leadership and the “marginalized and very diverse” international community.
Working for student government can also be legally dangerous for those on student visas, who can only work up to 20 hours a week — a ceiling that is often reached through teaching or research assistantships. In order to avoid violating that policy, international graduate students on the GSC often have had to forgo the stipends that all councilors receive.
If international students do not relinquish their stipends, “there is a potential of being deported,” according to an individual with knowledge of the matter who asked to remain anonymous for fear of legal consequences. “I was warned by ASSU about this, and by past GSC members who were international students.”