Grad Student Council battles anonymity

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It plans a huge yearly party and fights the power in the Harvard administration. And many Harvard Law School students don’t know it exists.

“What the hell is the Grad Student Council?” asks 2L Scott Smith.

“I have not heard of it either,” adds 2L Rebecca Riley.

Neill Perry, a 1L, tries a guess of his own. “This is different from the Law School Council, right?”

Not bad for a 1L. But the Graduate Student Council is different — a committee with four representatives from each of Harvard’s graduate schools. It both plans social events – including the popular annual Valentine’s Day party — and serves as an advocacy group for graduate students’ interests. In the end, part of the council’s mission probably matches what many students would expect. As Smith puts it, “I imagine if it’s a ‘Grad Student Council’, it’s something we piss and complain to.”

Recently, at one of the council’s biweekly meetings, members discussed topics ranging from dissatisfaction with health services to transportation to the Allston move. Linda Ellison, the council’s president, says that the group has also addressed a troubling series of sexual harassment incidents. On Tuesday, council members will meet with the University’s provost to discuss a variety of concerns.

But it seems that publicity among HLS students has not been high on the council’s agenda.

Theories about HLS students’ lack of knowledge and interest consistently focus on one factor: the size of the Law School student body compared to other Harvard grad programs. “For us, the grad council is not as beneficial as for other schools,” said 3L Joi Chaney, a law school representative on the GSC and the council’s Vice President. “We don’t think of ourselves as being a part of Harvard University, but as being a part of Harvard Law School.”

As Chaney and others explain, students at Harvard’s smaller graduate schools have shown more interest in the council as a way to connect with the wider university when their own schools cannot provide as large a community and as many student organizations as HLS.

The issue arose, Ellison said, when the GSC decided on equal representation on the council for each school. The Business School and HLS, though much larger, would have the same four representatives as smaller programs such as the Education School or the School of Public Health.

“Schools that are smaller don’t feel they have a voice on campus,” said Ellison, who studies at the Divinity School. “The grad council is a way they can come and feel they make a real impression.”

Still, both Chaney and rank-and-file law students say the GSC is relevant to HLS. Ted Bosquez, a 1L, said that the council could be an important force for seeing to the needs of all graduate students. “I don’t want to say we’re treated like second-class citizens,” he said, “But we’re not treated like the undergrads.”

Chaney and Ellison also focus on the council’s role in building community between Harvard’s many graduate programs. Chaney noted that the Law School is “very independent” but says that it “should have more of a connection with other schools.”

The council is “really the only vehicle for grad students to reach across the university,” said Ellison. She adds that the council fulfills a role missing from Harvard’s overall “every tub” philosophy of interschool relations, which puts independent financing and decision-making processes in place for each school. “[The GSC] transcends the ‘every tub has its own bottom’ philosophy, because it holds everything together and shows that there is something beneath them,” she said.

As the council’s most popular event for building community, the annual Valentine’s Day party attracted 2700 students last February to a Boston club, Ellison said. But the event’s computer dating match-up has also attracted students to each other. In the past five years, Ellison said, nine couples who first met at the party have since been married.

During the rest of the year, male-female relations on campus are not always so sweet. Ellison has become someone female graduate students often “piss and complain to,” but increasingly with serious charges of sexual harassment or even rape. She said the council and administration have responded by forming a committee to set out a sexual harassment policy “for the university, and not only for college students.” The College’s revised policy was itself a target of sharp criticism last spring.

Otherwise, the council has focused on the less highly-charged issues on the student government agenda. Delegates at the October 1 meeting discussed lackluster health services, which they said had led to numerous student complaints at many schools. Housing and transportation are also areas of student concern, Ellison said, which the council has begun discussing with the administration.

The council is also in the middle of filling its own ranks. Many schools have yet to select all four of their representatives for the year. At HLS, the Law School Council recently selected 1L Holly Hogan to join Chaney and 2L Rachel Saldana on the GSC.

Starting this year, the representatives may be involved in more than simply conducting council business. “As law school reps,” Chaney said, “we need to make sure we do better at publicizing [the council] to students.”

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