Letter to the editor

In Defense of Clarity

On Friday, at President Tripathi’s State of the University Address, members of the Living Stipend Movement silently stood and held signs reading: “Living Stipend?” “Are Poverty Wages Excellent?” “Is 34th Competitive?” and, of course, “UB works because we do.” In the otherwise well-written article covering the event, UB reporters mistakenly wrote that teaching assistants receive an average stipend of $38,000 for the nine-month academic year. The reporters’ confusion is more than understandable. UB administration has been less than clear in regards to TAs’ actual funding.

The “$38,000” figure refers to what UB administration likes to call the “total package,” which includes a tuition waiver, stipend, and subsidized health insurance. Layers of obfuscation make fact checking this number virtually impossible. My own “total package” is over $10,000 less than the official number. The “total package” myth also starts from a false premise. The tuition waiver is not income. It doesn’t cost the university anything. The amount is remitted by the SUNY system and never exists outside of a spreadsheet. It’s UB’s answer to Monopoly Money. 

The “total package” also assumes an average stipend, which means many fall below that number. UB spokespeople have recently claimed the average stipend at UB for 2018 is $18,012. This applies only to incoming students and does not approximate the average of TAs across campus. The average last year was just $15,540, and yet no TA suddenly found themselves with $3000 more in their bank accounts in 2018. Even more bewildering is that the “total package” for both years is listed as $38,000. How a supposed increase in funding has not led to a revision of the total package estimate is a riddle better posed to philosophers than accountants.

The “total package” figure also opaquely ignores the over $2,000 in mandatory annual fees, the highest of all 34 AAU publics. UB administration previously reported that UB TA stipends rank 12 out of 23 AAU publics; a fallacious figure as there are 34 AAU publics. When Professor Jim Holstun compared AAU net stipends, he found that UB ranks 34 out of 34 universities. No doubt, these layers of ambiguity contribute greatly to the challenges of reporting.

In the same article, reporters quoted Provost Zukoski’s response to the silent protest: “It wasn’t polite but they got the point across.” Zukoski seems unaware that people in power always find protests improper (See MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”). He also grants “politeness” an undue place in academic discourse. The stereotype of the curmudgeonly professor comes from somewhere, after all. If Zukoski’s critique is that we weren’t polite, but we were clear, then it seems our professionalization is complete.

The second half of Zukoski’s statement: “It’s good to hear their concerns” is similarly misleading. He seems to have forgotten that he’s “heard” us before. He’s heard us at Faculty Senate Executive Committee and general meetings, at our demonstrations last year, and in the resolutions passed by GSA, COAL, the Faculty Senate, and the Staff Senate. The administration refused to hear us when they illegally banned us from a UB Council meeting on October 1.

And TAs did not hold up signs during a university event because we are “concerned.” Our signs, like most, were a clear warning. UB leadership cannot claim to be Boldly Buffalo if they starve the students and workers that fulfill UB’s mission. Tripathi acknowledged in his address that TA stipends are “not what they should be” but failed to outline a plan for rectifying the situation. 

A truly “world class” university would have the class to compensate its workers fairly; or at least be clear about why it will not.  

--Macy McDonald

Graduate Teaching Assistant