At this year’s Admitted Students Day, prospective students and their parents passing by the Academic Mall fountain got an unexpected glimpse of some on-campus activism.
Around half a dozen graduate teaching and research assistants stood at the fountain on Saturday, April 6 to voice their dissatisfaction with recent student fee increases. They held up signs that read “SUNY works because we do!” and “Fees are wage theft.”
The so-called broad-based fees include a health and counseling fee, technology fee, transportation fee and other fees that are charged in addition to student tuition, according to the university’s website. Starting from fall 2019 semester, the fees for graduate students have been proposed to increase by $90.25 per semester, bringing the total comprehensive fees to $1,557.50 per year.
“$180, that’s almost groceries for a month or something,” John Klecker, second year PhD student in the chemistry department, said. “So I have to go back and re-budget my finances for the year … like there’s things I can and can’t do, you know, because I have to pay these fees.”
Some parents and prospective students attending the Admitted Students Day program looked on and some stopped to ask questions.
Stilianos Papazahariou from the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York, who is planning on majoring in biochemistry at Stony Brook University, said the protest was an unexpected scene during his tour around campus.
“I was expecting to see just the school, learn more about the classes, learn more about where I’d have to go,” Papazahariou said. “But honestly seeing that the graduate students aren’t being paid enough to live on it, it isn’t really something that I was expecting.”
Chief steward of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) at Stony Brook, Caroline Propersi-Grossman, said she is paid around $20,000 per year. Executive Vice President James Searle mentioned similar figures during his speech at the SUNY Board of Trustees meeting on March 20.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator, the required annual income before taxes for one adult living in Suffolk County is $32,301. Propersi-Grossman said the increase impacts international students more because of the visa restrictions they have on off-campus employment.
“I’m sympathetic to the fact that the university needs money to operate,” Kenneth Davidson, a second year graduate student at the department of ecology and evolution, said. “But us as graduate students, as employees, believe that funding for things like, support for Blackboard or paving roads or putting projectors in classrooms shouldn’t be something that the graduate students are paying for because those aren’t services we use. Those are services that we need to do our jobs as teaching, research and graduate assistants.”
Arthur Smith and his son Joshua Smith of Newfield High School in Middle Country Central District, stopped to talked to the graduate students and said they were sympathetic to the students’ situation.
“I know there’s a huge issue in the country right now with students going into debt for their education,” Arthur Smith said. “So, I wish it was better for everybody and more power to the grad students to get what they need.”
Joshua Smith said that although seeing the protest won’t weigh on his decision of where to go to college, he’s glad he got to see the students protesting.
“If the people teaching me have to focus that much on their own economic stability, they won’t have as much ability to teach me,” Joshua Smith said.
Propersi-Grossman said as part of a public employee union, they can’t go on strike under New York State law. But she said they can hold a sign up to bring awareness to “an unfair labor practice” and they’re coming back to protest again on May 1, International Workers’ Day.
“We shouldn’t be forced to pay to work, and this is part of a national movement for graduate students for a living wage,” Propersi-Grossman said. “It’s part of a national movement for graduate students to not have to pay to work.”
Stony Brook University Media Relations and the Bursar’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment in time for publication.