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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
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GSA Founding Father Addresses the 'Heart and Soul' of the University

Forty years after Robert Baier sat alone in the basement of his subsidized home, located in a downtown Buffalo housing project, to write the UB Graduate Student Association's constitution, he was invited to the GSA's senate meeting Wednesday evening to reflect on his past experiences and present the award that now bears his name for the "Most Outstanding GSA Club."

Baier, executive director of UB's Industry/University Center for Biosurfaces and professor of oral diagnostics, was one of GSA's "founding fathers" and served as its first president.

"I haven't lost the heart that I had and the enthusiasm," said Baier. "I want you to know that I thank you very much for your commitment to your colleagues."

"Graduate students are the heart and soul of the university, particularly a great research university," he added.

The university has not always shared that sentiment, however. At the time the GSA was formed, graduate students lacked many of the privileges and perks they now enjoy. Graduate students, for example, were not allowed to participate in many university activities, particularly sporting events, even though the students paid their own mandatory student activity fee.

"Student Association members could go in and show their Undergraduate Student Association ID and be admitted . while graduate students were turned away," said Baier. "[Graduate students] paid the same fee."

For a university that prides itself on being a progressive research institution seeking to encourage a great graduate student population, it may come as a surprise that UB discriminated against graduates in the very libraries where they performed their research. Since there was only one library and no electronic resources - such as the Internet and Cybraries - graduates relied on paper manuscripts called "stacks."

But UB closed the library early and would not open its doors on weekends; a dire inconvenience for its best and brightest students, Baier said.

"We had to go to the stacks after working all day in the lab and after taking classes to do our research," he said. "They would close the stacks to the graduate students at 6 o'clock and close the whole library at 8 o'clock!"

Teaching assistant stipends, which remain a sore subject for graduate students, were far less generous when the then-26-year-old Baier was struggling to support his wife and child on a mere $3,000 per year in the 1960s - roughly equivalent to $17,500 today.

To make matters worse, Baier said "personal differences" between professors often caused students to fail their graduate theses.

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"Students did not successfully defend their theses not because they couldn't defend them technically but because the professors were at one another's throats saying, 'I'm gonna flunk your student if you're gonna flunk my student,'" he said.

Although the days of such overt and blatant discrimination have long since passed, Baier described the graduate student government as a union.

"Because of abuse that still occurs between people who are in power and people who are not, you are still going to need some form of formal negotiating instrument," he said.

Baier maintained, however, that although graduate students may be "terribly unappreciated" by one another and "considered a threat" by the administration, they must always try to construct close ties with their "brothers and sisters in the faculty" who are their "closest ally," more so than the undergraduates.

One of the main factors leading GSA's growth, according to Baier, was the participation of humanities students in student government. When GSA was first founded, only science and engineering majors were involved, leading to a crisis when the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, a remnant of the McCarthy Era, investigated several graduate students and faculty.

After elaborate hearings, one student admitted he was a member of a Chinese communist branch operating in Western New York, while another confessed that his 12 years as a graduate student were merely a cover for his involvement with communist organizations plotting to blow up bridges between Buffalo and Canada.

"The closest we had to the humanities were the anthropologists and they were people who dug up bones," Baier said. "We weren't prepared and we weren't ready to deal with social and political issues. Hopefully many of you are in the thinking, creative trades."

The professor also expounded on his experience as a witness to UB's shift from a private to a public institution. According to Baier, SUNY approached UB as the "newest state university" and said they were seeking UB, with its pride, its full professional schools and research reputation, to be the "nucleus" or the "jewel of the SUNY system." If UB refused, SUNY threatened to construct another university nearby that would be tuition-free.

Despite "unwillingly" being associated with SUNY, Baier said most students were certain South Campus would remain UB's main physical location.

"We were told by the state that there was going to be huge growth, a huge investment and it was all going to be to the benefit of the city of Buffalo, its academics and its economic base," he said. "It was a breach of faith with the city residents when . [UB] chose to drain the swamp and put all the investment out here and leave the city to suffer for social purposes you recognize."

Baier jokingly reminisced about overall student life during the 1960s, a time of rapid growth and rigorous student activism in university history. UB had a strong Black Panther group on campus, whose graffiti could be seen scrawled on building walls. He said students "openly smoked weed" and would ash their butts into the new blue carpets.

He described a particularly humorous incident that occurred while he was giving an Australian visiting professor a tour of the campus. Much to their amazement, the men stumbled upon two students fornicating in the stairwell of a lecture hall, who only stopped for a brief moment to "say hi."

"Here I was with this professor from Australia whose brother was a priest," Baier laughed. "He couldn't get back to Australia quick enough."

At the conclusion of his speech, Baier presented Geography GSA with the newly named "Robert Baier Award for Most Outstanding GSA Club."



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