UB LIVING STIPEND MOVEMENT REAFFIRMS DEMAND WHILE ADMINISTRATION AVOIDS ISSUE, INTIMIDATES
BUFFALO, NY, October 9, 2017- On September 25, more than one hundred University at Buffalo students and faculty marched through the campus to Capen Hall to demand a living stipend of $21,310 for graduate students. The same day the university released a public statement arguing that stipend levels are “nationally competitive,” noting that the average graduate stipend is $17,343, and that students with assistantships receive a “total financial package” including stipend, “free tuition and free healthcare,” which averages $38,000 annually.
But members of the UB Living Stipend Movement are questioning every aspect of the statement. They said that the statement fails to acknowledge that graduate stipends in some departments are lower than $13,000, and that even students receiving such stipends would have to pay over $2,000 to UB in mandatory fees. “That the average stipend is $17,343,” said Global Gender Studies PhD student Elif Ege, “is actually irrelevant to our petition. We’re demanding a minimum living stipend of $21,310 for all teaching assistants.”
The graduate students also said that the statement obscures an underlying contradiction. “Insufficient financial support seriously undermines one of the institution’s major aims,” wrote English PhD student Andy Lindquist, “specifically, the aim of fostering the next generation of researchers and teachers and increasing the university’s rank and reputation.”
According to some, the administration’s statement mystified the economic hardships faced by graduate students. “No reputable university charges its teaching assistants tuition,” said English PhD student Simon Eales, “so for UB to suggest that the $38,000 is generous is actually devious on two fronts: the first being that the majority of that amount is merely the valuation on the tuition we rightfully receive as graduate students, and the second being that there is nothing remarkable about receiving such tuition without paying for it.”
The administration’s statement also asserted that teaching assistants receive “free health care.” “For those TAs who have families, the monthly family cost of health insurance is $156,” said Transnational Studies PhD student Karolina Kulicka. “This is not free, and not even cheap, especially if your bi-weekly check revolves around $400 and the insurance covers only the most basic services.” Graduate student instructors without families generally pay about $50 per month, according to English PhD student Nicole Lowman.
On September 26, the provost and other members of the administration met with Living Stipend Movement representatives. President Satish Tripathi mentioned the meeting in his State of the University Address on October 6, saying, “We are listening to our graduate students’ concerns, and the Dean of the college, the Dean of the Graduate School, and department Chairs are having discussions with them about the issues they have presented.”
Lowman said that Tripathi’s promises rang hollow. “In response to a peaceful demonstration,” she said, “UB administrators commissioned a squad of armed campus police officers to guard the doors during the meeting.”
The press release on September 25 stated that the university “is providing guidance to academic departments on how to increase stipends to nationally competitive levels.” But the Living Stipend Movement reaffirmed its demand for a minimum $21,310 for all graduate student workers, and suggested that stipend levels need to be increased through budget allocations at an administrative level.
The demand for a $21,310 stipend is partly based on Cost of Attendance data released by the university last year, said Biological Sciences graduate student Ozgur Taskent. “The administration has somehow revised its estimates for the 2017-18 academic year down, to suggest a lower cost of living. But it has only gotten more expensive to live in Buffalo.”
Members of the Living Stipend Movement say that, thanks to the overwhelming support of university staff, community members, undergraduate students, faculty, and graduate students, the movement is now stronger than ever. Their petition currently has 937 signatures.
English PhD student Sean Pears wrote: “As long as the university continues to release public statements that misrepresent the financial position of certain graduate students, and discount the basis of our demands, we will continue to make our voice heard.”