“Leadership will be redefined in the Covid crisis”: Interview with GSU presidential candidate Gisèle Scanlon

“I don’t think there will be any excuse for not bringing the kind of principles like inclusion, diversity, vision and community to college or graduate school”

Gisèle Scanlon wants to build a compassionate Graduate Students Union as GSU President, a goal fuelled by the promise that “my empathy will make me a good leader”. Scanlon brings four years of experience in the Graduate Students Union to her uncontested candidacy for GSU President, but her choice to run was not inevitable–“the students have informed my decision”. 

Now pursuing her third masters degree in art history (following a M. Phil in English literature and creative writing), Scanlon currently serves as GSU Vice-President. She wasn’t sure she would run, but “as Covid progressed my decision became more resolute”. In some sense, then, her candidacy is her rising to new challenges coronavirus presents for graduate students, and the changes leaders must undertake: “I think leadership will be redefined in the Covid crisis. It’s about listening to people and serving.” 

This emotional engagement is at the core of her “I. C.A.R.E.” election campaign, which outlines her “five pillars of innovation, community, accessibility, research and equality”, the issues she believes to be at the centre of the graduate student body. Her manifesto is diligent in offering recognition and potential policy solutions or campaign support across all five of these areas, from sustainable transport to international work-visas affected by departure due to Covid-19. The direction of her presidency would be decided by the needs of the student body, she says. She cites Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, as an example of compassionate leadership she wants to emulate, more proof that “empathy and being politically effective are not exclusive…I don’t think there will be any excuse for not bringing the kind of principles like inclusion, diversity, vision and community to college or graduate school”.

At the top of her list, Scanlon says “I suppose the biggest mandate on our lap would be calling for a dedicated department of  higher education”. This follows on from over 800 academics and researchers addressing an open letter to Irish TDs calling for such a department this week, with notable signatories including Trinity’s Senior Lecturer Kevin Mitchell and Professor Luke O’Neill. She cites the letter, which states: “investment in research that is well below the EU average, decreased core grants to universities, and a growing demand to increase student numbers, current policies have created a perfect storm for higher education and research in Ireland”. 

Scanlon herself says that recent announcements about the lack of future funding (motivated in part by the economic hit states in quarantine have taken)  are “absolutely unacceptable” and that she plans to start fighting immediately: “There is no commitment or expectation of additional funding for the education sector at the current time. That is affecting our research and it’s something that I’m going to be fighting from today out, whether or not I’m GSU President.”

Here, “the most contentious issue is the future funding of casual pay”, an issue which gained the spotlight in February when College sought to cut the hourly pay of PhD students working as laboratory demonstrators. Although temporarily reversed, future decisions on pay cuts are still pending. This, accompanied by high costs of living and Dublin’s rental market means Scanlon is “deeply concerned” and “ha[s] been working on it as vice-president and look[s] forward to continuing my work as president”. Her manifesto promises to “lobby College to increase the threshold point at which supplemental income impacts grant awardee status”, and she is confident that “the entire community wants change”–  “my role [as president] would be to bring all the voices into the room together and see where we can activate that postgraduate population to effect change– not only in our institution but in other institutions”.

Notable when these pay cuts came to light was tension between Scanlon and current GSU President Shaz Oye, and while Scanlon acknowledges that “the postgraduate community has been through a difficult year”, she also wants for us to “begin focusing on the year ahead and what we can achieve”. The most important relationships, in her opinion, are those that are built with the student body, since “the students give us our mandate”. 

She also wants to address what she calls the “jigsaw” of the strategic plan, which she predicts will need to be taken apart and put back together again in light of new Covid-19 challenges. Her job is “to scrutinise these formal structures and see how they affect our students” to ensure that no loose strings leave students unprotected. She also wants to keep an eye on the board as it restructures, to ensure that “fundamentally, those that are making decisions for the college are members of the college”, and that this includes its students. She hopes to work with the SU President so that the Welfare and Education Officer, as well as the SU and GSU President, maintain their spots on the board. 

When asked about other goals for her presidency, Scanlon mentions that “Sustainable Development goals are important as ever”, and she hopes to continue the work of previous GSU Presidents in lobbying for Union of Students in Ireland (USI) membership. Currently, the Trinity postgraduates are represented in USI only through Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), rather than through the GSU. She thinks this “can cause disappointment at times” and aims to demonstrate how GSU membership in USI is mutually beneficial: “It’s good for us and it’s good for them. USI would have access to a room embedded in the postgraduate community and this would allow them to know not only the problems our students face but also some of the solutions.” 

Scanlon brings her own experience and goals to the role, but believes that at its core the GSU is a mouthpiece and advocate for the students who elect them. Her main hope for the coming year is “a nimble Vice, a nimble committee, and a nimble GSU”, and she promises a future of “many, many subcommittees”. Her presidency hopes to lean away from broad rhetoric and into compassionate, concrete leadership to be at its most effective. In essence, “it’s about opening up a positive space and focusing on solutions, and I think I’ve found a way to do that”.

Madalyn Williams

Madalyn Williams is a Deputy News Editor for Trinity News.