New Graduate Student Government elected, plans for increased engagement| Mar 12, 2015
Akshay Mehra GS, a graduate student in the geosciences department, was elected president of the Graduate Student Government, GSG announced at its Wednesday meeting.
He joins newly elected secretary Katie Wolf GS, treasurer Mike Hepler GS, special events officer Liz Davison GS and returning vice president Mircea Davidescu.
The meeting marked the end of a challenging year for the previous GSG officer corps, which was burdened with repeated delays in the construction of Lakeside Housing Project, the new graduate housing site.
High on the agenda this year will be plans to strengthen ties among graduate students across the University to create what Mehra said should be “a sense of a large community beyond individual departments.”
One proposal, also discussed by last year’s committee, is the introduction of a new on-campus graduate center. In contrast to the Debasement Bar, located in the basement of the Graduate College on the far side of the local golf course, the new establishment would provide a central, on-campus venue for people to socialize after work.
“It’s crucial that we have a space,” Mehra said.
Members of the new officer corps interviewed also said they hope to increase engagement both among graduate students and between GSG and the graduate student community, with only 351 of 2,697 total graduate students taking the time to vote.
“One of the things I think is a big issue is that there is a lack of involvement or cohesion within the graduate student community,” Mehra, who ran unopposed in this year’s elections, said.
He was motivated to run for the position in order to create a more cohesive voice for graduate students at the University, he said.
Currently in its 26th year, GSG comprises the executive board as well as representatives from each academic department and program. Its work over the years has included negotiating health plans and housing benefits for graduate students at the University.
Involvement in this year’s elections was low, even by historical standards. Of the five positions open to election earlier this month, only one — treasurer — presented the option of more than one candidate. Moreover, just 13 percent of the graduate student population cast votes during the week-long voting period, down from over 20 percent last year and nearly 50 percent in 2013.
A probable factor in this year’s turnout was the lack of competition for positions, outgoing president Sean Edington GS said. Voting for one candidate in favor of “abstain” or “disapprove of all candidates” certainly draws less attention than a race between two or more people, he explained.
However, political apathy among the University’s graduate population cannot be completely explained by the lack of competition for positions. Similar concerns were raised by GSG officers in an April 2012 Daily Princetonian article, which experienced a comparably low turnout despite a competition for the position of president.
Edington said he believes there are more complicated, “structural” reasons contributing to low engagement in GSG politics.
“For most graduate students, the reality is that you come in from off-campus housing, you go to your department — which is usually around the fringe of the campus — and then you go back,” he said. “That removes a powerful motivation to get involved, and it also makes it less convenient to get involved.”
For some, there may be more to it than a decentralized population. Max Hirschberger GS, a resident of Stanworth Apartments, said that he viewed the GSG as having “almost zero influence.”
“I don’t think they did a bad job with Lakeside,” he said. “They tried to communicate, but it sounded a bit like they were saying ‘Let’s just make sure nobody can say we didn’t do anything.’ ”
Davidescu, the returning vice president who worked with Edington and the administration on rent forgiveness for students stranded by delays to Lakeside’s construction, said the disillusionment with the GSG’s ability to effect change is fairly common.
“People assume that if the administration wants to, they can just ignore us,” he said. “That is definitely not the impression that we have got working here and with the USG. We’re trying our best to improve that.”
Surveys and polls on housing and transport issues throughout the year have much better response rates than elections, he added, noting that GSG is therefore still able to work with the administration on behalf of students.
However, there is certainly room for improvement in the transparency of communication between administration and the graduate population, Wolf, the incoming secretary, noted.
“Some of the communication to graduate students about the process could have been a bit more clear,” she said of delays at Lakeside. “We need to be kept informed. We need to know when things are happening.”
GSG also has plans to improve transit between campus and graduate student housing, as service is currently infrequent or in some cases unavailable over weekends and University holidays, Davidescusaid.
Davison, the incoming special events officer, is a first-year graduate student and said she ran for the position after Hepler recruited her. Hepler said he had been previously involved in GSG in other capacities and was proud of social events he helped to put on in the past.
Mehra said he hopes that better access to campus, combined with greater incentives to remain there outside working hours, will result in a more cohesive and more involved graduate community.
“There are 2,700 graduate students,” Mehra said. “That’s more than half of the undergraduate population. It would be nice to have a level of engagement that mirrors that.”