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Living Stipend Movement stages protest outside Academic Excellence ceremony

Demonstrators say TAs and GAs are living in poverty, demand fair stipends

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TAs and GAs feel they are living in poverty. Graduate students say they have to work second or third jobs in order to pay for their living expenses—an option international students do not have. Many rely on food stamps to survive. And many more feel their low pay negatively impacts their ability to teach at UB.

Roughly 30 demonstrators participated in a protest demanding what they call a “living stipend” for TAs and GAs outside Slee Hall Thursday afternoon. The protest took place outside UB’s Celebration of Faculty and Staff Excellence Ceremony. The participants, who assembled peacefully, demanded the university administration invest in a minimum stipend of $21,310 for all students. This is the second protest the Living Stipend Movement organized in a month.

Bill Regan, UB’s University Events director, instructed protesters to keep their demonstration “off to the side.” He said protesters are “entitled to free speech,” but wanted to choose a “mutually advantageous spot.”

The demonstrators cooperated and assembled on either side of the entrance to Slee Hall. Some participants carried banners that read “President Tripathi Raise our Wages,” “Living Wage Now,” “UB Living Stipend” and “Excellence Not Poverty.” Ana Grujic, an adjunct instructor, handed out pamphlets outlining the group’s mission while the other participants stood quietly to the side, clutching their banners.

The pamphlets explained that participants wished to honor their colleagues’ recognition in the Academic Excellence Ceremony while drawing attention to the ways in which “meager stipends” prohibit TAs and GAs from achieving the excellence to which they aspire.

The protesters entered the lobby after assembling outside Slee Hall for more than half an hour. Demonstrators chanted “UB works because we do” and “What do we want? Living wage. When do want it? Now,” for roughly two minutes before they were escorted out by Regan.

The average TA and GA stipends at UB are “nationally competitive” at an average rate of $17,343 per academic year, according to a statement from the university. UB’s average stipend figure is derived from payroll data for 1,429 students who received stipends from UB departments during the 2016-17 academic year.

Elif Ege, a Ph.D. candidate in global gender studies, said the participants chose to protest at the Celebration of Faculty and Staff Excellence Ceremony because the members of the Living Stipend Movement are also striving for academic excellence, but feel they cannot achieve academic success without fair pay.

“This university is claiming to be excellent and giving away these awards, while TAs and adjuncts who are a part of the same university are struggling with poverty,” Ege said. “There’s a huge discrepancy happening and we want to point that out. We don’t want to live in poverty. We just want to be excellent like the people who receive these awards and we congratulate them, but in order to achieve that for ourselves the administration has to meet our demands.”

Angela Menditto works three jobs, including her job as a TA in the philosophy department. But Menditto said she is barely making ends meet.

“For instance, I didn’t have internet for a whole month. I had to cancel it because I couldn’t afford it,” she said.

She said she is often forced to ask her parents for help paying bills, and as a 25-year-old woman, Menditto wants to be more independent.

“What we do is at least as important as what other departments do,” Menditto said. “The ranges in stipends between departments is kind of appalling. They are basically saying philosophy is not as important as, say, chemistry or something.”

Menditto said her stipend is $13,250 yearly. Melissa Wright, a TA in the comparative literature department, said her stipend is roughly $14,000 yearly.

Juhi Roy, an officer for the Graduate Student Union, said the university’s numbers differ from the Living Stipend Movement’s numbers because the university includes Research Assistants in their calculations. RAs receive higher stipends than TAs and GAs. In addition, the UB number is based off of 1,429 graduate students, while there are 9,772 graduate students enrolled at UB.

Grujic said she faced unique challenges as an international graduate student. She had to pay additional fees, experienced “existential difficulties” and was ineligible for student loans. She was also unable to apply for a job outside of the university.

“And for graduate students, another job is practically necessary, but [international students] cannot get them,” Grujic explained. “And we do not have support from our parents, many of us actually help our parents back in home countries. Basically, there’s a pretty profound lack of understanding for [international students’] circumstances.”

Xander Percy, a junior geology and global gender studies major, believes other undergraduates should care about TA stipends because many undergraduate classes are taught by TAs and GAs.

“Personally, I have graduate students teaching five out of six of my classes,” Percy said. “Why are we paying so much to come to this university when our teachers aren’t even being paid fairly? Why on Earth are we paying through the nose to come to the University at Buffalo? Where is all that money going?”

As a third generation UB student, Percy said his parents and grandparents also dealt with low graduate stipends. He said he would like to stay in his hometown and pursue graduate studies at UB, but he will apply elsewhere if UB doesn’t raise its graduate student stipends.

“People are literally starving. People are on food stamps because the university refuses to pay them more,” Percy said.

Percy also expressed concern about police presence at the event.

“And I can see at least two or three undercover cops right now. I don’t know if they think they’re being subtle,” Percy said. “We’re not scaring anybody; we’re not threatening anybody.” This isn’t the first time the Living Stipend Movement has encountered UPD. Students met with administrators for a follow-up meeting on Sept. 26 where eight officers guarded the meeting

University Police dispatcher Chris Tornabene said Deputy Chief of UPD Joshua Sticht was present at the demonstration and that there “may have” been undercover officers present as well. He said UPD occasionally utilizes undercover officers but the decision is at the discretion of the administration.

The university “hopes to move forward” with a plan to raise stipends for departments that are below national benchmarks, according to a statement from UB Vice Provost for Educational Affairs Graham Hammill and CAS Dean Robin Schulze.

“This approach has increased stipend levels within several academic departments and we anticipate working with additional departments, such as English, to implement similar strategies,” Hammill and Schulze said in a university statement.

Grujic said she wants to remind the administration that after the march, the Living Stipend Movement isn’t going anywhere.

“We will be here and as soon as need-be, we will escalate if they do not give us a substantial response,” Grujic said. “Escalating means, we have another march and regardless of what happens, we are spreading the movement. The protests will be more intense, more focused. Our allies will grow in number.”

The protesters are seeking that stipends increase.

“Usually the administration is saying that this is a complex issue, but it’s really not that complicated,” Ege said. “Our final aim is very easy: it’s just a living wage that we want.”

Maddy Fowler is a news editor and can be reached at maddy.fowler@ubspectrum.com.


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