Editor's note: This letter remains in the condition in which it was sent.
Dean Schulze and Provost Weber,
One year ago, President Tripathi and former Provost Zukowski announced the launching of the Ph.D Excellence Initiative. This program seeks to recalibrate the Graduate School and individual decanal units towards a more focused strategy of recruiting, retaining, and graduating UB’s best and brightest with the highest form of academic distinction. This initiative came at a confluence of both a national conversation about the role of graduate students both inside their institutions and in the job market, and local outcry over the poverty wages paid by the University to graduate students. Graduate students themselves, organized by the Living Stipend Movement, led that outcry at first, being followed by the full power of a Faculty Senate resolution asking the President to formulate a solution in the spirit of Shared Governance. While not solving the problem of graduate student poverty entirely – it importantly left out a large swath of graduate assistants and graduate students working as adjuncts – the Ph.D Excellence Initiative decreed that many Ph.D students would see a raise in their stipend to $20k for their 10 month contracts. I am writing to you today to speak about the often unconsidered and yet still unjust side of this equation: student fees for graduate assistants.
By the accounts provided by the Provost’s office, the academic deans were largely involved in the shaping of the Initiative. One piece agreed upon was the coverage of student fees for funded Ph.D students. For a full-time student, these fees come to more than $2,000 per academic year, and are paid after taxes. This effectively becomes 15% of the $20k stipend floor. While negotiated salary increases by GSEU are at 2%, fees also seem to go up at approximately the same rate annually. In short, student fees financially burden graduate students in a significant way. They are a work tax. Despite this, and despite agreed upon principles through all units, the College of Arts and Sciences has decided to not pay those fees for the 2020- 2021 academic year. Before immediately chastising this decision and spiraling into outrage, I think that prudence deems that there be a review of the recent history of CAS deliberations on student fees.
In a memo to department chairs dated August 2019, the college said the following: “Beginning in academic year 2020-21, all fully funded PhD students in CAS will receive supplemental funding to cover the actual cost of their fees.” This information quickly became public knowledge after the announcement of the Excellence Initiative. As stated, this sounded like a clear policy that was to be executed.
In late September 2019, nothing short of chaos ensued when the announcement that there was to be a freeze in Ph.D student recruitment for AY 2020-2021 in CAS was circulated. This was only stopped by a general body meeting of CAS faculty and a rescinding of that potential policy. In a fortunate outcome, this moment created the impetus for a proliferation of committees on the Initiative in the college. However, the discussions around this issue showed quite clearly that the overall institutional lack of financial transparency allowed only hearsay to be entered as evidence to points about how the Initiative was to be funded. On one hand, enough money existed to increase stipends immediately; on the other, not enough to
allow regular Ph.D student recruitment. Any numerical backing of claims of this sort are still nigh to be found.
As discussions ensued and committees worked tirelessly to attempt to actualize the Initiative in the college, discussions about fees were pushed further and further to the background. By March 2020, though, the decision had become apparent: The policy once so clearly stated became a thing of the past. The decision had been made – behind closed doors – that the college would not be covering student fees for supported Ph.D students. Reasoning has not been given as to why this decision was made, how this decision was made, or when it was clear that this was the decision to be made.
Of course, March also saw an unprecedented set of circumstances arise in the emergence of the novel COVID-19 virus. While we do not need to rehash the effects of this on UB institutionally, it is worth a reminder that graduate students have disproportionately faced the challenges of this virus financially. Closures of lab space, restriction of part-time on-campus work, deletion of a large percentage of summer classes, graduate students cohabitating with persons laid-off and unable to work, uncertainty this summer regarding international student statuses: This list only represents the tip of a massive iceberg. While some of these consequences of a global pandemic, ensuing economic freefall, and an actively xenophobic and racist federal government are felt by all, they are compounded by a salary already less than a living wage then slashed deeply by mandatory student fees.
In a funding request to the Provost’s office dated 20 April 2020, the Dean’s office again promised to pay graduate student fees for the 2020-2021 academic year, and stated that the annual cost of this would be approximately $780k annually. Recently in September, a communication to Graduate Studies Directors across the college again contradicts this promise, stating that budget shortfalls due to COVID-19 have halted this plan indefinitely, even into the 2021-2022 academic year.
While CAS has said that graduate student fees are a priority, there has been no action taken. Graduate students over the past year have received nothing but empty promises on the subject. Meanwhile, UB administration continues to make significantly more proportionally than its peers. According to an independent analysis of UB’s finances, this costs us $23.5 million dollars annually. This could pay for the graduate student fees in the college nearly 30 times over.
Therefore, my request to both of you, and to Dean Schulze in particular, is that there is a reconsideration of the decision to not cover graduate student fees for the 2020-2021 academic year. This may require cooperation and negotiation between the Dean and the Provost, perhaps in unusual amounts. But we have all seen the hard and dedicated work done by CAS faculty to make the Excellence Initiative a reality, and often in unusual amounts. It is clear to me that many of the faculty so wish to see the principles of the Ph.D Excellence Initiative realized, even if there are real disagreements as to how this is to be done. Large amounts of these were worked through, as is clear from the excellent set of recommendations from the various bridge committees on the matter.
I eagerly await your reply not in words, but in bold action.
-Michael Montoro, Ph.D Student, Mathematics