The Graduate Student Employees Union at Stony Brook has created and released a letter of opposition in response to university administration's recent announcement that student fees will, once again, be increased this semester. Read our letter below, and consider sharing with friends and colleagues! Find our contact information below to reach us for more information, to get involved in the union, or to comment on our letter.
An open letter to Stony Brook University students, workers, and administration:
On April 2nd, Vice President for Finance and Chief Budget Officer Lyle Gomes wants to have a conversation about how the fees will be spent. We’re sure he won't run into much contention over increased flu vaccines and better routers for Wolfienet, improvements both the students and administration need. The conversation we need to have is about why graduate students need to foot so much of the bill when many of us already live in near-poverty. We feel that the increases being proposed ignore the financial situation of graduate student workers, in which we find ourselves without contract and with raises that do not keep up with inflation. Further, it is our belief that these fee increases exacerbate an economic situation that already interferes with graduate program attractiveness to qualified applicants and hinders us in our work by making acquisition of basic necessities a sometimes difficult task.
Recently, Lyle Gomes, Vice President for Finance and Chief Budget Officer, announced that Stony Brook would once again be raising biannual fees for graduate students. This time, our fees are being raised by $20/semester or $40 annually. It was made clear that these fee increases would continue into the foreseeable future. This increase brings the total annual fees paid by full-time graduate students to over $1,200 annually (even more for international students). Given that the average full-time graduate student earns about $17,000 (some earn as little as $8,500) we find this fee-increase, and its planned continuation, unacceptable, unsustainable, and unreasonable considering the good faith in which we contribute to this university in both our paid work and academic accomplishments.
The planned fee increases are effectively graduate employee pay cuts. The salaries for most positions in administration and faculty have risen significantly in the last five years. As graduate student employees, we see our pay dwindle with each successive fee increase. As indicated above the majority of graduate students covered by the GSEU are solely employed by the university and earn around $17,000 a year before taxes. Most of us do not have time for additional employment. Our home departments do their best to prevent us from needing to work outside them, but resources are limited. The rate of graduation from graduate programs is one of the most important measures of success for academic programs and universities, successive pay cuts make outside work ever more necessary, lengthening time to graduation.
Our fees, which will now total about $1,200 a year, give 7% of our salary directly back to our employer. For some departments, like music and art, fees take away closer to 10%. Even for the “wealthiest” grad students working as research assistants, the fees take 4% of their income on top of state and federal taxes. If the university does not stop raising fees, the grad student raises put forth in SUNY 2020 will still result in 6% of our income being cut every year. The campus graduate community was under the impression that the entire point of the 2020 initiative was to increase the profile of Stony Brook University. Will falling wages, in a climate of inflation, in a location with a high cost of living, do anything to attract the most qualified prospective students? Will we not rather miss out on the best applicants as the best and brightest choose to live more comfortable lives at institutions that already do not need an initiative to raise their profile?
Further, we question if we are being asked to pay disproportionately for raises given to other members of the campus community. At $40 per person, the proposed fee increase will raise about $200,000. Raises in other parts of the budget far outstrip this amount. We also find ourselves looking with skepticism upon campus improvements, wondering if they will increase the financial pressure under which most of us already struggle. Graduate students, especially those of us that fall below the common $17,000 a year, are already living near the national poverty line of $12,119 in income per year. This figure covers the entire United States, meaning that areas like Long Island and New York City that have a significantly higher-than-average cost of living likely have a higher effective poverty line. The ‘downstate’ adjustment to our paychecks instituted in the last, expired, contract is almost meaningless in the face of the prices we face. Our struggle to be productive is exacerbated by the fact that graduate students are not eligible for any of the federal or state programs designed to combat the effects of poverty. For instance, It is a frustratingly common experience for graduate students to have our work and academic progress impeded by chaotic, sometimes dangerous, and frequently illegal housing conditions. This is especially true for those of us living near campus who cannot afford the costly on-campus housing options, the price of which increases every year as our wage falls.
We are the Stony Brook Graduate Student Employees Union