Roughly 30 UB graduate students, faculty and community members gathered in the Student Union on UB’s Accepted Students Day to participate in the rally to fight for higher wages and lower fees for graduate students.
The protest was organized by the Living Stipend Movement, and is the fourth demonstration on the issue of livable wages for graduate students since last fall. The number of prospective students and their families from the largest incoming freshman class on campus made Sunday the most visible protest yet.
Nicole Lowman, a leader of the living stipend movement, said she thought Accepted Students Day was an ideal time to get the attention of UB officials.
“We thought that this would be the place where UB administration was trying to make themselves look as great as possible,” said Lowman, a graduate student in the English department. “They’re trying to really draw people here and we know that they get tuition dollars from them, and we thought the people here who are considering whether they want to come to UB or send their children here should know about the exploitative practices of the university.”
The average stipend across all graduate departments was $17,343 in the 2016-17 academic year, according to UB’s Office of Institutional Analysis. Graduate students pay over $2,500 in fees, leaving less than $15,000 a year. The MIT living wage calculator approximates the standard livable income for a Buffalo resident to be $24,072.
The protesters took their signs from the Student Union to 1Capen and back chanting, “UB works because we do,” “Waive the fees” and “Here is how, fair pay now.” After reconvening in the SU, professors and students used the moment to give speeches about stipends.
The chants were aimed at the UB administration, which released an official statement earlier in the morning of the protest saying that “graduate assistants at UB today receive a total funding package of about $38,000.”
Lowman said even the most liberal estimates of the financial package she receives from UB amounts to around $31,000 and questions the discrepancy.
“I would really like them to delineate what the hell they’re talking about with that number,” Lowman said.
Botan Dolun, a third-year teaching assistant in the philosophy department, said he receives a stipend of around $13,000 a year, before taxes. Dolun said he cannot survive on his current stipend without the financial support of his family.
“Without it, I really couldn’t survive in Buffalo as a grad student, and my major problem is being dependent on my family,” Dolun said.
When asked their thoughts, most prospective students and parents seemed indifferent to the rally, and a few said the demonstration left them with a slightly negative impression.
Prospective nursing student Natalie Sherwood said she heard chants while shopping for UB apparel in the SU and thought the rally was inappropriate.
“It was different. I feel like there is a time and place, and this wasn’t either one,” Sherwood said.
SUNY Student Association President Marc Cohen also attended the rally to support the protesters. Cohen, who’s currently running for New York State Assembly, said as a graduate student at SUNY Albany, he understands the pressure to choose between “books and food.”
Faculty Senate Chair Philip Glick said he felt strongly about the poor financial situation many graduate students find themselves in.
“If there are graduate students here who are going to bed hungry, for five out of seven nights a week, it’s unconscionable,” Glick said. “Graduate students need to be able to eat good breakfasts, and have a good dinner so they go to sleep satiated and wake up energized before they go to work, because otherwise this is like a third world country.”
A recent National College Health Assessment report showed that 25 percent of UB students experience some degree of food insecurity.
On March 12, the GSA passed a resolution urging UB administrators to take “immediate action” to raise graduate stipends to living wage levels and highlighted the student’s vulnerabilities to financial hardships. The proposed resolution also asked President Satish Tripathi to establish a committee to study competitive minimum stipend levels and make recommendations on how change should be implemented.
Lowman said that the resolution was sent to UB administrators, and GSA received a response from Provost Charles F. Zukoski saying students should communicate with the deans of their departments.
“They work with their budgets to set stipend levels,” Lowman said. “But at the end of the day, we know that the reality is that the budgets that the deans get come from the officials. We’re really tired of the buck being passed.”
UB recently announced a four-year plan that will increase new graduate students’ base stipends within the English department's doctoral program from $15,000 to $18,000 in the first two years, starting next fall. Under the plan, the English department will reduce its enrollment by 15 students, eventually bringing its total doctoral enrollment to 50.
Lowman credits the movement in the English department to how vocal English graduate students are. She feels the next step UB officials should take is to waive the $2,000 student fee.
Correction: The original article stated, "The protest was organized by the Graduate Student Association, and is the fourth demonstration on the issue of livable wages for graduate students since last fall." It was not organized by the GSA. It was organized by the Living Stipend Movement.
Anna Savchenko and Haruka Kosugi are news editors and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.