UB Living Stipend movement stages sit-in outside administrative offices

Demonstrators demand ‘living stipend’, share personal stories of hardship


In the third Living Stipend Movement protest this semester, demonstrators shared vulnerable, personal stories about what they characterize as a struggle to survive on unfair stipends as part of an hour long sit-in.

Roughly 50 demonstrators participated in a sit-in outside of administrative offices on the fifth floor of Capen Hall Monday evening. The protest began in the Student Union Lobby, and from there participants marched to Capen Hall. Protesters chanted “here is how, fair wage now” and “UB works because we do.” Demonstrators carried banners and signs; one read “President Tripathi Raise Our Wages," another read “Excellence in research, not survival.”

When protesters, who were assembling peacefully, reached the administrative offices, they were met with five armed police officers clad in bullet proof vests. Four more police officers could be seen inside the offices. The officers would not permit demonstrators to enter the administrative offices, so participants staged a sit-in in the lobby.

Members of the Living Stipend Movement have been calling on administrators to raise TA and GA stipends to a minimum of $21,310 per year.

Ph.D. students receive a total funding package of about $38,000, which includes tuition scholarship, stipend and health benefits, according to a statement from UB spokesperson John Della Contrada. The statement also said the university is in the process of determining if departments whose stipends fall below the national average can increase their stipends to meet national benchmarks.

Protesters, however, say their stipends average less than $14,000 per year. This discrepancy exists because the university includes research assistants when calculating the median stipend for TAs and GAs. If RAs are not included in the equation, the average stipend for TAs and GAs is $13,100, according to Juhi Roy, an officer for the Graduate Students Employee Union.

Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Barb Ricotta briefly addressed the crowd. She said President Satish Tripathi was not in his office, but assured protesters they could stay as long as they like.

“You can stay and sit as long as you’d like, as is your privilege,” she said.

The crowd responded that protesting is not a privilege, but rather their right as workers.

Alyssa Schwendener, a visual studies Ph.D. student expressed discomfort about the police officers guarding the administrative offices being armed.

“The fact that I’m in a room with at least four guns right now is painful,” she said. “I don’t know why there need to be guns in this stairwell. I don’t know why there need to be guns anywhere. And the fact that I’m here means that even though it is painful, this needs to be done. And I think the fact that it’s not understood as painful but necessary by people who apparently don’t want to be here listening to us blows my mind. “

The sit-in lasted for over an hour. Graduate students shared stories of the struggles they have faced with their low stipends.

Leslie Nickerson, a former Ph.D student in the English department, had to drop out of her program and get a full-time job because she could not afford childcare for her daughter, Zoe with her low stipend. 

“It just wasn’t doable anymore,” Nickerson said, breaking down in tears with Zoe on her hip. “And while I’m on a leave of absence, I don’t think I’m going to be able to come back and finish my degree. I’m here because while it may be too late for me, I don’t want anyone else to be in my situation.”

Bridget Daria O’Neill, a former Ph.D student in the comparative literature department, also ended up leaving her program. She said she received very little support when she was transitioning and ended up being let go after her second semester of teaching.

“I was then let go after my second semester of teaching, I was six months into hormones at the time. I was in a very vulnerable position,” O’Neill said. “It’s not very easy to get a job when you’re in my situation. And I was basically just thrown away.”

She believes marginalized students are most heavily impacted by low stipends.

“Students of color, queer and trans students are the ones hardest hit by that and the effect winds up being that demographically you’re not allowing the people who most need to be heard to participate in what’s supposed to be a symposium of ideas," O'Neill said. 

A Ph.D. student in the American Studies department explained that the issues graduate students face extend beyond just low wages. She makes a $13,000 per year stipend, which amounts to roughly $11,000 per year after student fees. She is leaving her program and said her decision to drop out is not just about wages, but also the “extreme exploitation” she feels she has faced as a TA. She said her TA assignment was tripled during the fourth week of classes, and she was not given adequate time to prepare for the courses she taught. The longest notice she’s gotten about needing to teach a class was the night before classes started.

“And I feel like that’s not uncommon for a lot of people,” she said. “Especially those of us that are passionate about our job and those of us that are good at our job. We get exploited more because they think we’ll just do the work because we care. So that’s why I decided to stop. I’m not going to be pimped out just because I am able to do this work for you.”

The student started crying, saying “I cannot do this anymore.” She said she was “severely” sexually harassed by a professor in her department and felt “no confidence” in going to the leadership of her department.

“We are absolutely not taken seriously. And the work we do is beyond what most of the professors on this campus do,” she said. “And I know there are professors who have issues with sexual harassment, but they have more security when that happens to them. When it happens to us as TAs, I don’t have anywhere to go.”

 Anne Marie Butler, a global studies Ph.D. student out that graduate students could have chosen to go a different career path and make more money. But she said academia would look “very different" if that were the case. 

“We’re soon going to see what the people who can afford higher education look like—and it’s going to look very different,” Butler said. “And none of their voices are going to contribute to any conversations about class, race, gender, ethnicity and religion. It’s going to become a very one note dialogue and a very slippery slope.”

Ariana Nash, an English Ph.D. student said while she was “shocked” that the university stationed armed guards outside of the administrative offices, she was generally pleased with how the protest went.

“The group continues to grow stronger,” Nash said. “It started six months ago largely in the English department, and today there were so many different departments here. So I think it’s a diverse group of people and that diversity is important. That’s what this event was about—it’s about making sure that voices are heard.”

Maddy Fowler is the editorial editor and can be reached at maddy.fowler@ubspectrum.com.