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Sunday, May 19, 2024
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Letter to the editor

On Monday, Oct. 1, the UB Living Stipend Movement attempted to attend a supposedly public meeting of the UB Council to ask why graduate and teaching assistants at UB do not earn a living wage. They were largely barred from the meeting under the false pretense that allowing them in would violate university fire code. After, members of the Council meekly trotted out a back exit, shielded from the horrors of criticism and questions from less affluent folk by a locked door and a UB police officer. 

This blatant disregard for both the principles of public servants and New York State law regarding public meetings would be reprehensible on its own, but on that very day, UB’s “Director of Issues Management & Stakeholder Communications,” Kate McKenna, published a press release on the UB News Center. This press release begins with the claim that “[t]he university very much values the talent and dedication of its graduate students,” proceeding with statistics that purported to show how much the university cares, but without acknowledging the UB Living Stipend Movement or their concerns. “Issues Management” indeed. This is an insult to UB’s graduate and research assistants, faculty, undergraduates, and the community at large, who university management apparently perceives as a herd to be fed misinformation and so kept in line. Let’s examine some claims from the press release:

“Last year, the College of Arts and Sciences implemented a process for raising teaching assistant stipends. The College of Arts and Sciences has partnered with the departments of philosophy, linguistics and English, which has, in particular, made considerable progress. UB’s English department has increased doctoral student stipends by $3,000 this fall. This raises the average amount of stipends awarded to teaching assistants in the English department to $18,000…”

It seems that the press release would have the public conflate a supposed increase in English TA stipends with an increase in stipends across the College of Arts and Sciences. This is misleading in two ways. First, this supposed stipend increase is actually a top-up to particularly poorly compensated students within the English department alone. Second, even if this number were accurate for all students in these departments, it fails to take into account the $2,000 in mandatory fees that graduate students pay, as well as the fact that according to the MIT living wage calculator, a living wage for Buffalo is about $24,000 per year. Even if the press release was being truthful here, that would leave these stipends $8,000 short. It is worth noting that the median stipends for UB TAs and GAs are each less than $18,000 and $14,000 respectively, according to a UB report from this past May. 

“...graduate students who serve as teaching assistants at UB receive a total funding package averaging about $38,000 per year, which includes a tuition scholarship... a stipend[,] and health benefits. The university believes this represents a significant investment in our graduate students.”

Evidently, over half of the university’s investment in graduate students is in the form of their tuition waiver. Tuition waivers are not income. Tuition waivers do not help graduate students put food on their tables or pay bills and mandatory university fees. If this is what a “significant investment” looks like for a university with an endowment of approximately $660 million and access to over $100 million in unrestricted funds each year from the UB Foundation, it suggests how little the university values assistants who run classes, grade assignments, and perform much of the research that happens at UB during and outside of the academic year.

On the topic of funds beyond student stipends, the press release provides another gem, which is an indirect, inadequate response to observations made by members of the Living Stipend Movement:

“Unrestricted funds from UBF are limited in their use and they are used for specific purposes, in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. These funds are limited for use in following three categories.” [sic]

Before looking at the restrictions on unrestricted funds, the discerning reader may meditate on this statement. Perhaps the press release is giving us the UB administration’s take on a Buddhist koan. If the contradiction is pondered long enough, the dedicated acolyte may reach enlightenment and so have no need for such worldly things as financial independence. What does it mean for unrestricted funds to be restricted? Certainly, someone must have the power to determine the uses of unrestricted funds. Or perhaps the power lies with a number of people… such as those who create university policy and essentially choose the university president. But these conceptual puzzles are mind-bending and obviously beyond the minds of lowly students. Let us continue to the three restricted uses of unrestricted funds.

“Funds to support UB schools or units, the press release stated. “These funds have no donor restrictions, but are limited in their use to a specific school, unit or program… Funds designated for investment purposes… in accordance with best practice spending policies followed by UBF… Funds that are not liquid; they represent the value of property, plant and equipment assets or fine art assets, or are reserves set aside to maintain university property, plant and equipment.”

These explanations are, at best, inadequate for communicating what unrestricted funds are to be used for. In fact, this press release seems to raise more questions than it pretends to answer. It is not made clear how these funds are actually distributed or precisely how they can be used, and it does not explain how these funds being so tied up would justify the fact that UB graduate stipends rank 34th out of 34 AAU schools after factoring in mandatory fees. 

The university’s refusal to listen to the concerns of those who keep it running indicates that administration and the UB Council would rather sit on their hands than do the minimal work of making sure that graduate students are paid a living wage. It indicates that they intend to continue functioning without transparency, violating New York State law, engaging in self-congratulatory performances, and neglecting their duties as stewards of a public institution while graduate students struggle to support themselves.


Austin Liebers, Ph.D. philosophy student



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