Rajat Chakravarty

Time to rebuild

Rajat Chakravarty was elected president of the U of S Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) on an ambitious platform, and he intends to build on every plank.

The PhD student in mechanical engineering took over May 1 as head of an organization that has been through a tumultuous year marked by disagreement, conflict and allegations of wrongdoing, some of which are under police investigation. Chakravarty said it was inappropriate to comment on the details of what may or may not have happened except to say the new GSA executive fully supports the investigation. He does acknowledge that serving as vice-president of student affairs last year "was a huge learning experience for me. Now we have the chance to rebuild something that has crashed and burned."

Going into the new year, Chakravarty believes the top priority for the organization has to be transparency. "There is an asymmetry of information about the GSA," he said, particularly when it comes to its financial position and operations. His commitment is to provide members with regular financial updates and ensure the GSA books are open to all.

At the organization's annual meeting April 28, members gave approval to proceed with a financial audit and also discussed the need for a second review to ensure fi nancial dealings are in compliance with GSA policies, said Chakravarty. Work still needs to be done to determine if a compliance audit could be done at the same time as the financial audit. "They might be one and the same," he said, adding the university, particularly the College of Graduate Studies and Research, has indicated willingness to provide monetary support for the process.

The college has also offered to pay for a governance expert to assist in a review of the GSA policies and constitution, said Chakravarty. A 10-member grad student committee is already in place and working to "clean up" those policies.

"There's a lot of ambiguity," he said, "a lot of room for bad faith or subjective interpretation. That ship has sailed. We want to really tighten it up. To operate effectively and transparently, we have to be able to explicitly say what's legitimate and what's not."

The second plank in Chakravarty's election platform and another priority for 2015-16 is upping the level of grad student engagement in the organization. "A lot of grad students are confined to labs and any interactions they have happen within departments. We have to look for more opportunities for them to interact, things that go beyond departmental boundaries."

Chakravarty said those opportunities include events, conferences, lectures, information sessions and workshops on topics like filing tax returns. He also believes a multicultural focus is key to grad student engagement. "That's what I concentrated on as VP and it paid off ," with students celebrating their various cultures at a number of social gatherings. "We want to make sure students don't just eat the food and leave."

Collaboration is Chakravarty's third priority, particularly where efforts are duplicated across the university. "The GSA does the exact same thing as a lot of other independent bodies on campus," he said, orientation being one example. There is also the need for a graduate student voice in policy development work in areas like child care and sexual assault. Chakravarty is part of a coalition advocating for a sexual assault policy for the U of S "and it would be unfortunate if there is no grad student perspective" because in university residences that accommodate grad students with spouses and children, "the dynamics of sexual assault can look very different."

Having detailed his agenda for the coming year, Chakravarty added that he will soon face a comprehensive exam and has a thesis that needs to be written. It will be a busy time for the GSA president, "but it's a huge opportunity."

Joining Chakravarty on the GSA executive for 2015-16 is David Bennett as VP finance, Natalia Terekhova as VP external, Jebunnessa Chapola as VP academic and Hardi Shahadu as VP student affairs.

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