Students, faculty hold rally demanding fair graduate stipends
Demonstrators march from Student Union to administrative offices
Many TAs and GAs struggle to put food on the table and rely on food stamps because their stipends are too low.
Roughly 100 participants rallied for living TA and GA stipends Monday afternoon. Participants marched from the Student Union to the administrative offices on the fifth floor of Capen Hall. The purpose of the march was to present a petition entitled “Petition for TA Living Stipend,” which calls for $21,310 minimum stipend. The march was organized by the UB Living Stipend Movement. The petition had 885 signatures from TAs, GAs, undergraduate students, faculty and community members.
A small group of the demonstrators met briefly with Provost Charles Zukoski and Graham Hammill, vice provost for the Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School. Zukoski and Hammill offered seeking charitable donations from the UB Foundation donors and downsizing departments as possible solutions to students’ fair pay concerns. Hammill and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin Schulze are expected to meet with representatives from the Living Stipend Movement Tuesday afternoon.
Demonstrators carried signs that read “affording food is not a luxury” and “living wage now.” They chanted “UB works because we do” and “here is how, fair wage now.”
Leslie Nickerson, a protest participant, is an English Ph.D. candidate who is currently on leave because she could not afford to live on her TA stipend. Her stipend was just under $14,000 per year. Like many graduate students, Nickerson is a single parent. She could not afford childcare at UB—the UB Child Care Center charges $65 per day.
“I hope the people who are coming through the program behind me have access to a living wage so they can actually devote their time to their studies,” Nickerson said. “I would like students to be able to pursue a quality education without being economically precarious.”
When the protesters arrived on the fifth floor of Capen Hall, President Tripathi did not make an appearance. His Chief of Staff, Beth Del Genio, and Provost Zukoski accepted the petition in his stead.
“We’re hungry, this is ridiculous,” one protester yelled out.
“It is difficult for me to reach in at the provost level and just say, pay them more,” Zukoski explained to the visibly frustrated crowd.
The demonstrators erupted with cries about the $15 million football field house and President Tripathi’s $696,970 salary.
Nicole Lowman, an English graduate student who presented the petition to Zukoski, said she did not feel yelling in a circle was productive and requested a private meeting with Zukoski. He agreed.
Zukoski, Hammill, Lowman and English graduate students Christopher Bomba and Joseph Hall participated in the meeting.
UB Spokesperson John Della Contrada expressed concern about allowing media in the room, but Zukoski permitted The Spectrum to stay and report at the meeting.
Zukoski said the stipend the university provides to graduate instructors is “well above” a living wage when broken down into an hourly wage.
The graduate students were not convinced.
“It is nearly impossible to live on $13,100,” Lowman said.
Zukoski said the university records on average stipends differ from Lowman’s numbers, which are from the Graduate Student Employment Union.
According to UB Spokesperson John Della Contrada, the average TA stipend is $17,343 and the average stipend for English TAs is $15,136. The stipend range is $9,385 and the union contractual minimum is $32,000. Stipend levels are set by the individual departments. UB's stipend payments have grown from $2.4 million to nearly $25 million over the past four years, Della Contrada said in a statement.
Lowman asked why there was such a discrepancy between the Graduate Student Employment Union’s numbers and the university’s numbers.
The discrepancy exists because the university includes research assistants when calculating the median stipend for TAs and GAs. If RAs are not included in the calculation, the average stipend for TAs and GAs is $13,100, according to Juhi Roy, an officer for the Graduate Students Employee Union .
“When we recruit [graduate] students, we are recruiting students, not labor,” Zukoski said “We offer merit scholarships and in return students get their studies done and a degree is conferred. The money is not meant to be a wage –it is meant to differ costs.”
While it might not be intended to be used as a wage, it acts as one, Bomba said.
Bomba grew frustrated with the negotiations and felt the administrators were not giving concrete answers.
“The thing is, landlords don’t wait. Cops don’t wait to evict you. Your stomach doesn’t wait,” Bomba said. He pulled out a blue SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) card—more commonly referred to as a food stamp card. “Do you know what this is?” he asked Zukoski.
“Um…I’m not sure…it it some kind of ID? Your driver’s license?” Zukoski said
“This is a food stamp card. This is your management strategy,” Bomba said.
Bomba asked Zukoski if the university needs to downsize in order to pay graduate instructors a fair stipend, suggesting it might make more sense ethically to do so. Zukoski said downsizing is “on the table.”
“It sounds like your solution is austerity, cutting students—I don’t see how that helps the college serve its mission,” Hall said.
Binghamton University instituted stipend increases for TAs across the board in 2015, according to Hall, who said the money came out of BU’s equivalent to the UB Foundation.
“UB has the means to do it [too], they just don’t have the willpower to mobilize,” Hall said.
Zukoski said all the money that goes into the UB Foundation is determined by the donors.
“Raising money philanthropically is nothing but a good idea,” Zukoski said.
“We want to work together,” Hammill said, “No one wants to see students starving.”
As the meeting passed the twenty-minute mark, the roar of protesters’ indistinguishable rallying cries echoed into the Provost’s office. The meeting concluded with an agreement that Lowman would meet with Hammill and Dean Schulze Tuesday, and a commitment from the administration to “continue the conversation.”
When Lowman emerged from the meeting to report the results, angry protestors chanted “bullsh*t” in response to Zukoski and Graham’s purported solutions.
Hall, however, remains optimistic about the future of the movement.
“I’m really excited about the broad support we received today—faculty, undergraduates, adjuncts, folks from industrial engineering, mathematics,” Hall said.
But he also issued a warning to administrators.
“This is the last time this can happen without a concrete solution,” he said. “At end of the day, they didn’t budge. Next time there need to be a concrete step.”
Lowman and Hall participated in the follow-up meeting in a room at 1Capen guarded by eight police officers on Tuesday. Hammill, Schulze, English Department Chair Rachel Ablow and Director of Institutional Analysis Craig Abbey participated in the meeting.
Two armed officers escorted Lowman and Hall to the conference, where they had to be screened at a security desk before being admitted.
“I don’t feel like anybody was trying to totally blow us off,” Lowman said, “But at the same time, that message has been heard many times before and things are still pretty much the same.”
Lowman suggested that the university “leverage” the UB Foundation in order to bring stipends up to a “livable level.”
“If the administration were actually behind increasing stipends I think that they would be able to make a compelling case for it,” Lowman said
Beyond being an ethical claim, she explained, it “behooves” the university to encourage UB Foundation donors to sponsor higher stipends because it would attract graduate students that otherwise might go to another school.
She and Hall also suggested eliminating one of the fees that graduate students pay as one possible partial solution.
Lowman is “cautiously optimistic” after Tuesday’s meeting.
“That is a first step in building a trustful relationship where we can work on these problems, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” she said, “We can have piles of information, but that doesn’t change the situation.”
Lowman and Hall are expected to have another follow-up meeting with Provost Zukoski and other administrators. A date for the meeting has not yet been set.
Sarah Crowley and Dan McKeon contributed reporting.
Maddy Fowler is an assistant features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org