Graduate students dissatisfied with stipend increase

English department increase still below "living wage"


Graduate students in the English department aren’t satisfied with newly announced increases to their pay, which they say will result in their program shrinking and primarily benefit future students.

Over the next four years, the English department will reduce enrollment by 15 students, eventually bringing its total doctoral enrollment to 50. The College of Arts and Sciences will pay for two clinical faculty members to make up for some of the teaching work graduate students currently perform as TAs.

The plan, announced Wednesday in a statement from the university, will start in the fall and increase graduate students’ base stipend from $15,000 to $18,000 in the first two years. In the third and fourth years, it will increase to $19,000, with “the very best doctoral students” receiving a stipend in the $20,000 range.

The university statement came in the wake of months of protests from graduate students for what they called a “living wage” in the face of the rising cost of living.

Arguably the biggest blow to the department will affect the students already participating in the doctoral program, graduate students said.Current students who aren’t receiving supplemental funding in the form of scholarships will only receive an additional $2,000 per year –– less than the newly announced stipend increases, according toRachel Ablow, chair of the English department.

Nicole Lowman, a graduate student in the English department, said the increased stipend is still not enough to provide doctoral students with a living wage. Lowman currently works three jobs outside of her duties at UB, she said. She argues the cost of living in Buffalo should justify a larger paycheck from the university.

“[Our] campaign is not about cherry picking departments and rearranging things to make it look nice, like a Band-Aid on the issue,” Lowman said in an email. “Even with the increase in the English department, we still all pay back over $2,000 in fees to the university, which effectively puts the stipend at $17,000, now $7,000 less than the cost of living. In three years’ time, when the increase plan will have finished, the cost of living will certainly be much higher. When we started the petition in late April 2017, MIT had the cost of living in Buffalo at about $22,600.”

The MIT living wage calculator computed that the current living wage for Buffalo is $24,000.

The move for a living wage started in September when 100 graduate students and faculty marched from the Student Union to administrative offices on the fifth floor of Capen. They presented administrators with a “Petition for TA Living Stipend,” calling for a minimum living stipend of $21,310.

The initiative organized two more major protests during the fall semester.

The new changes will put English TA stipends above the average of $16,364 among public institutions in the Association of American Universities. TAs are expected to dedicate no more than 20 hours during the week toward teaching.

The Graduate Student Employees Union and New York State also began negotiating a two percent annual stipend raise in May 2016. Students received their first increase during the fall semester.

Lowman said nothing is changing by reducing the number of students allowed in the program. She believes they’ll be spreading the same amount of money around to a smaller group of recipients.

“The English department currently has 65 TA lines, which it is gradually shrinking by admitting fewer and fewer students each year, and the current students will not see this increase,” Lowman said in an email. “It's ... not as though the university is investing more money in its graduate programs. It seems to be capitalizing on an opportunity to make itself look good.”

Ablow said the bolstered stipend competes with other large schools in the country. She also said the $19,000 stipend is for nine months rather than 12.

“Of course we would like to be able to provide our graduate students with more support: summer funding, for example, better travel funding, etc.,” Ablow said in an email. “[Dean Robin Schulze] gave us a set budget however and we worked within it. We did the best with what we had, and I’m extremely proud of our ability to have some very difficult conversations and make some difficult decisions about how best to serve our graduate students.”

Ablow said graduate students played an important role in determining the changes to the stipend. Graduate students are voting members of every committee in the department, with the exception of those dealing with tenure and promotion, Ablow added.

“The committees tasked with making these decisions were no different. ... Graduate students are voting members of the department: their voices — and their votes — were heard throughout the process,” Ablow said. “I also met separately with the [English Graduate Student Association] to make sure all concerns and questions were being addressed.”

Many graduate students share Lowman’s frustration and feel the university is only using this opportunity to better its image after doctoral students protested numerous times in the fall semester.

The stipend increase only affects students in the English department, but according to the university’s announcement, the college is working with the departments of comparative literature and philosophy to raise stipends, as well. It also says the college has worked with the chairs to raise stipend levels in the departments of communication, biological sciences and chemistry.

James Ponzo, a TA and Ph.D. student in the American Studies department, is happy to see fellow students receiving a larger sum of money, but is skeptical the college will actually increase stipends for all graduate students.

“I can’t say that any of this is surprising. UB is a business. I am, however, extremely disappointed that they would not sit down and negotiate with every department, or at least let us all know that they have plans to do so,” Ponzo said in an email. “The optics are terrible, and it definitely doesn’t send a good signal to those whose educational process involves educating students on behalf of the university. ”

UB spokesperson John Della Contrada said graduate students’ overall packageaverages about $38,000 annually and includes a tuition scholarship, stipend and health insurance. 

“While many of UB’s academic departments do offer graduate student assistant stipends that are on par with national averages, the College of Arts and Sciences recognizes there are some academic departments whose stipend levels are below national benchmarks,” Della Contrada said in an email. “In these cases, the college is providing guidance to academic departments on how to increase stipends to nationally competitive levels.”

Josh Flaccavento, a Ph.D student in the English department, questioned why UB administrators are paid extremely well and receive additional funds from private foundations, yet none of that money can be used to benefit graduate students.

Flaccavento said he is disappointed in the university’s efforts to use the issue as an opportunity for publicity instead of working to completely fix the problem.

“They're congratulating themselves for something that still doesn't fix the fundamental issue, which is ... underpaying TAs. This makes it harder for them to teach and to finish their degrees,” Flaccavento said. “This plan also doesn't do much good for TAs in other departments, many of whom are currently paid less than what we get now. ... Or for adjuncts, most of whom make far less than that. So, it hardly seems like something for which the university ought to be patting itself on the back.”

Ultimately, Flaccavento called for the university to exhibit more transparency when dealing with these types of issues. He said he’s tired of being treated like a customer, instead of a student who the university claims to value.

“For me, the heart of the matter is that this university –– like many in this country and the world –– is run more like a private business rather than a public institution of higher learning,” Flaccavento said. “The administration likes to talk about being ‘competitive’ –– that's language from the corporate world, wherein businesses compete with each other for customers. Well, students aren't customers and education isn't a product, at least as far as I'm concerned.”

Max Kalnitz is a news editor and can be reached at

Twitter: @Max_Kalnitz