After a year of protests, little resolution on stipend level issues

The Faculty Senate is gathering data to assess if UB stipend levels competitive with peer schools

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Graduate students still insist they are not being paid a living wage, yet the university says it spends more than the national average to support its graduate students.

And after a year of start-stop negotiations and demonstrations, no one can even agree on the amount the university pays its teaching and graduate assistants.

Totals released from the university list stipend levels at just below the $18,004 average for graduate students across peer AAU public institutions, according to UB spokesperson John Della Contrada. In a statement released April 15, the university said the average graduate student receives a stipend of $17,343 and a total package worth $38,000. UB graduate students insist their “total packages” are smaller and that they also pay the highest fees among peer institutions. The university, they say, does not take this into account when assessing its investment in graduate students.

Graduate students have never made a lot of money, and there is an expectation shared by many that the “lean years” are a trade-off for a higher-paying job later on. But of the 12 graduate students The Spectrum spoke with, many said they are worried they won’t be competitive in their job markets. Many said they feel the increasing cost of living in Buffalo combined with the stagnant stipend rates are hurting their chances in the job market, by forcing them to devote less time to research.

Natalia Pamula, a comparative literature Ph.D student in her last year of graduate school, is worried about getting a job in her field after graduation.

“The question is, if you are an institution of higher education that values research, don’t you want us to get academic jobs? I don’t have enough time to spend on my dissertation, and it is really hard out there in the job market. We basically cannot compete with people that had more time to work on their dissertations,” Pamula said.

Graham Hamill, vice provost for educational affairs and dean of the graduate school, said that the graduate school partners with offices across campus to provide graduate students with the information and training they need to compete for a wide range of jobs.

Rachit Anand, a first-year comparative literature Ph.D student, chose to attend UB instead of the University of Delhi. He said he had followed the works of professors in UB’s comparative literature department for years before deciding to apply to the university. Even though the University of Delhi offered Anand a better stipend, he still chose UB for academic reasons, he said.

Anand said he considered transferring to another university because of financial struggles. But still, he feels the faculty here are the best fit for him.

“Several other universities, with lesser faculty strength, are able to support their graduate students much better,” Anand said. “Having said that, my contention is not that we are paid less in comparative terms — which we are — but that we are not supported by the standards set by the university itself on its website and official papers. That is just demeaning to the job that we do, which is to teach, and by that effect demeaning to the university as well.”

By the numbers

English Ph.D candidate Nicole Lowman has been at the center of the Living Stipend Movement, a group of students and faculty pushing for higher stipend levels. She said she does not receive what the university claims it pays graduate students.

Lowman received a $14,780 stipend for the 2017-18 academic year, a tuition waiver valued at $8,154 per semester and health insurance that amounts to $3,406.95, according to copies of her tax forms and student account, which Lowman showed The Spectrum. Lowman received a “total package” of $26,343.95, roughly $24,000 after she paid mandatory fees.

“For me, the ‘total package’ is much less,” Lowman said. “I hesitate to use that phrase because any respectable Research I university funds its Ph.D students and includes tuition. It is usually not even presented as something the university is paying, because they're not.”

The university has to pay SUNY for scholarships. Academic units incur most of the cost, Della Contrada said.  

Lowman says she is one of the “lucky ones” who receives an additional $3,750 per semester in supplemental funding from the university in the form of a presidential fellowship, which she uses to pay for her student fees. Without it, Lowman said she would not be able to afford to pay for living expenses, such as rent and food.

The bigger picture

The faculty senate budget advisory committee is in the process of looking at other peer institutions and writing a report and recommendation to the senate based on its findings, according to Senate Chair Phil Glick. The committee expects to complete its report by the fall.

The report will aim to delineate the financial and academic implications of providing a living wage to graduate students, Glick said.

“The bottom line is that every department in every unit is going to have a discipline-based solution because a lot of this is driven by market value of what you have to do to be competitive to get Ph.D candidates,” Glick said.

Although the average stipend at UB is $17,343, base stipends across graduate schools range from around $10,000 to $23,500, according to data presented at a faculty senate budget meeting on Friday.

UB compares itself to University of Pittsburgh, University of Iowa, Stony Brook University, Rutgers University, UC Irvine, and University of Arizona on a national scale. UB graduate students pay among the highest student fee rates in the AAU system, at $2,513 per academic year. .

University of Pittsburgh’s graduate students pay $850 per academic year. The average teaching assistant stipend is $18,450 for the 2018-19 academic year. The current living wage in Allegheny County, PA., is estimated at $21,506, according to the MIT living wage calculator.

At the University of Iowa, the average stipend amount for the 2018-19 academic year is $19,225, according to Jennifer Crawford, an administrative services specialist at the University of Iowa graduate college. The current living wage for the University of Iowa’s Oakland County is $22,781.

MIT living wage calculations show that many institutions offer stipends lower than living wages in respective geographical locations. However, schools like Iowa and Pittsburgh have smaller gaps between stipend and cost of living than at UB.

“If we want to be competitive on a national scale to attract the best and the brightest graduate students, we have to give the same kind of packages that other AAU universities are offering, and to me it’s not clear that we’re doing that,” Glick said.

At University of Iowa, graduate student fees are waived for teaching assistants, while at the University of Pittsburgh and the UC Irvine, graduate teaching assistants are partially refunded the amounts they pay for fees, according to graduate policy statements found on the universities’ respective websites.

Ariana Nash, an English Ph.D student, said it is unfair for UB to charge teaching assistants a fee for using technology, because they use equipment such as projectors and computers to better the student experience in the classroom.

“It’s illegal to charge workers for what they're trying to do in order to work,” Nash said. “They get around that because we’re both teachers and students, so they are paying us as teachers and charging us as students.”

Pamula said she feels that UB uses fees to make profits off of students.

“UB is run like a company, but it says it is a university,” Pamula said. “This makes me feel ambivalent because I feel that the education I have received all and all is absolutely fine, and I was lucky with the additional financial support from my department. My situation was better than those of other people, and my advisors were wonderful, but the institution, administration, and the way UB is run with fees just sucks. I don’t know if this is the sort of reputation UB really wants to have.”

The Living Stipend Movement, looking forward

On March 13, the Graduate Student Association Senate body passed a resolution put forth by the Living Stipend Movement to increase stipends for graduate student teaching and research assistants.

The resolution asked university officials to take “immediate action” to raise graduate stipends to living wage levels, and asked President Satish Tripathi to establish a committee to study competitive minimum stipend levels and make recommendations on how change should be implemented.

The Faculty Senate passed the resolution in an executive committee meeting on March 14.

Provost Charles Zukoski sent an email to GSA President Tanja Aho in response to the proposed resolution that said students should talk to the deans of their respective departments.

Lowman said the problem goes beyond the deans’ control.

“Yes, it is a true statement that the deans control the budgets for their departments,” Lowman said. “But to say to go to the dean is not addressing the issue. The issue is that there are all these budgetary priorities that are in place throughout the state of New York, SUNY and UB that are making this situation what it is. At the end of the day, we know that the reality is that the budgets that the deans get come from the officials, and we are really tired of the bucket being passed. We’re really tired of getting the runaround, and to blame the deans for it is really disingenuous.”

On Feb. 14, the university announced that the English department will reduce its doctoral enrollment by 15 students over the next four years and bring down total enrollment to 50.

Under the plan, graduate students’ base stipends will increase from $15,000 to $18,000 in the first two years, starting this fall. In the third and fourth years, they will increase to $19,000.

Although some students felt shrinking the department was not the ideal outcome, others say the new enrollment total is a more accurate reflection of available jobs in the humanities.

“I am in favor of shrinking the program,” Lowman said. “I think it’s good because our program was huge, and the job market for professorial jobs in the humanities is really scary, and the fact that there is an institution turning out that many people with [doctorates] is unethical.”

Although the university said the College of Art and Sciences is working with department chairs to increase graduate stipends, departmental changes in other schools have not been made.

Nash said changes in the English department were a result of the strength of the movement’s lobbying force, as many members of the movement are English graduate students.

Lowman said many international students from other departments feel reluctant to be vocal and support the movement. She said they may worry about their visa status, losing their funding and lack of support from faculty advisors.

Anna Savchenko is the assistant news editor and can be reached at anna.savchenko@ubspectrum.com and @annasavchenkooo.