Letter to the Editor: Response to 'Students, faculty hold rally demanding fair graduate stipends' article

Dear Spectrum Editor:

In a Sept. 26 story, “Students, faculty hold rally demanding fair graduate stipends,” The Spectrum reported that over a hundred members of the UB community marched to Capen Hall to demand that UB pay its RAs and TAs a living stipend. After he received their petition, Provost Charles Zukoski said, “It is difficult for me to reach in at the provost level and just say, pay them more.”

When they hear this sort of argument, people sometimes remember UB’s billion-dollar endowment, the UB Foundation (UBF). They wonder why so many of UB’s graduate students have to go into debt and onto food stamps while they study, research and teach—the vital work of any university. Provost Zukoski responds by saying his hands are tied: “all the money that goes into the UB Foundation (UBF) is determined by the donors,” according to the article. It’s an old argument.

It’s also untrue. In the fiscal year 2015-2016, the UBF gained $111 million in new revenues, with $100 million available for immediate “unrestricted” spending. Only $6 million of this would have been enough to lift impoverished RAs and TAs to their requested bare-bones stipend level of $21,310. President Tripathi and Provost Zukoski like to pretend that such a thing is impossible, blaming others for TA and RA poverty. But they know they could end it tomorrow with the stroke of a pen. They themselves, and nobody else, draw up the budgets for UB and the UBF.

It’s the obvious thing to do: someone with the responsibility for solving a problem and the power to do so should get to work. It’s the decent thing to do; and for impoverished adjuncts as well as TAs and RAs. And it’s the smart thing too, given that UB’s long-term academic reputation depends on graduate student teaching and research. A little empathy might be helpful here. When the president and provost think back to their own graduate student days, they may be able to picture how hard it is to do good research when you are working two extra jobs while worrying about childcare, eviction and mounting loan debt.

Where does UBF money go instead? That’s hard to say exactly, given that its board members, including the president and provost, claim the right to spend it without public oversight. What we do know is that, in 2015-2016, the UBF spent over $8 million dollars on secret contracts and almost $40 million on secret salaries and bonuses. SUNY’s Auditor and its Board of Trustees are currently seeking full disclosure on where the money goes. For some reason, the lawyers of UB and the UBF are resisting. It’s almost as if they have something to hide.

But they will fail, thanks partly to former UB Vice President Dennis Black. As readers of The Spectrum know, Mr. Black was convicted last month of embezzling $320,000 from the Faculty Student Association: an organization similar to the UBF, but much smaller. It was a serious crime and it deserves a serious punishment. But the exponentially larger secret expenditures at the UBF, even if they are technically legal, also deserve our attention. These days, “Trust us!” doesn’t carry the weight it used to.

The audit will probably go public in November. In the meantime, President Tripathi and Provost Zukoski could start doing the right thing by paying UB TAs and RAs a living stipend. What’s the ethical alternative? In a pinch, a Walmart CEO who forces his low-wage workers onto food stamps can blame his bad behavior on greedy stockholders. But what’s the excuse for a president and provost who do the same thing at a great public university?

Jim Holstun

Professor of English