UB deans officially raised all Ph.D. teaching assistant, research assistant and graduate assistant stipends to a baseline of $20,000 for the 2019-20 academic year.
UB announced the increase on Monday, after the deans decided unanimously in July. Provost Charles Zukoski, who disagreed with previous stipend resolutions, supported the decision, according to Graham Hammill, vice provost for educational affairs and dean of the graduate school. The stipend increase came with the launch of a Ph.D. Excellence Initiative which will “examine issues” related to Ph.D. programs in order to enhance Ph.D. students’ educations.
This initiative does not include master’s student workers, despite some students feeling they often do the same amount of work. Some departments’ stipends were already close to, or above, $20,000, while others will see a 30-40% increase in their stipends, according to Michael Montoro, UB Council student representative. UB will notify eligible students of their stipend increases in October and pay them retroactively.
“This move will have a huge impact on some of the least-paid [Ph.D. student workers],” Michael Morse, a physics Ph.D. student, said. “Before this there were students working a full appointment that were making $10,000 a year. For them, this is life changing.”
The engineering department had an average stipend of roughly $19,700, according to Rajan Batta, interim dean for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But Batta feels departments whose stipends aren’t affected will still benefit from the change.
“We had several students above the $20,000 stipend already, so what’s exciting for us is not the stipend, but the Ph.D. Excellence Initiative,” Bajan said. “So, moving forward we want to be able to improve the quality of our Ph.D. programs, be able to get better students and have them get good industry jobs.”
But for other students, the increase means more.
Willis McCumber, an English Ph.D. student, is the media coordinator for the Living Stipend Movement. McCumber said he has been working to see this type of change since the LSM started in April 2017.
“It’s really important to realize this isn’t just enlightened administrators waking up one morning and realizing graduate students need better stipends,” McCumber said. “It’s the effect and result of direct action of graduate student workers.”
Hammill said the change will ensure UB “remains competitive,” in order to recruit and retain the best Ph.D. candidates.
Hammill, in a statement, said Provost Zukoski shared his plans to launch the Ph.D. Excellence Intiative in June and it would “ensure that UB’s Ph.D. programs remain among the strongest in the world.”
LSM members see this as a victory following their demands, but are still seeking a “living wage” and questioning the decision-making process.
In an email, LSM called the stipend increase only “four-fifths of a living wage.” The group hopes to eventually see a stipend floor of $24,000 per year, after fees.
“The $24,000 net number the LSM demands is not based on what we feel is appropriate,” Morse said. “Rather it is based on the MIT living wage calculator. $24,000 is a living wage in Buffalo.”
Hannah Stokes, a Ph.D. geography student, said she is grateful for the stipend increase but wished the dean's decision was more transparent.
“My understanding is that the administration has been claiming there isn’t enough money to increase stipends to the cost of living, and yet suddenly they have implemented this policy and magically the money is there for this immediate school year,” Stokes said.
Stokes said she’s also concerned “UB will eventually reduce the amount of funded Ph.D. students or increase student fees to pay for this increase in stipends.”
McCumber wasn’t expecting to see an increase this year at all.
“It’s hard to fight for something for two and a half years and not see any sign of a concession and retain your faith that you’re going to actually see some results,” McCumber said. “All of the organizers are just overjoyed that workers have made [an] impact.”
LSM hopes to keep pushing for the Living Stipend Solutions Committee formation, which the Faculty Senate passed last year.
Montoro said the increase is to be celebrated, but it’s still not a “perfect plan.”
“It’s a huge vindication and acknowledgement of what we’ve been asking for, but fees are still an issue,” Montoro said.
LSM members are hoping to see the New York State Senate pass bill S3916B, which would provide fee options for graduate students.
But they hope to see UB take action before then.
“We would like to see UB take action and make a statement that they know that bill is going through and do something on our campus about it,” Montoro said.
Brittany Gorny is the senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter @BrittanyUBSpec.
Brittany Gorny is the senior news editor.