Update, 8/18/19, 6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the Disability Rights Coalition.
Stony Brook University will start making “modest investments” during the 2019-2020 school year, Interim President Michael Bernstein said in a budget update linked to a campus-wide email sent on Thursday, Aug. 1.
The university has made “substantial progress” towards stabilizing the budget through efforts to reduce spending and grow revenue, he added.
“We have slowed down hiring, identified operational efficiencies, and achieved some enrollment growth,” Bernstein wrote. “We have also received additional revenue in the form of tuition and fee increases and State funding related to the retroactive payments due under our labor contracts.”
Some of the changes include raising graduate student stipends to $20,000, adding more than 2,800 seats to classes during the Fall 2019 semester and implementing initiatives to improve accessibility .
The university will support the expansion of several existing programs, with initiatives that include developing a speech pathology major on the Southampton campus through the School of Health Technology and Management, establishing a nursing residency program through the School of Nursing and growing the number of faculty and staff in several departments — among many others listed on the outline.
“It is my sincere hope that such commitments may be part of a continuing effort to bolster our University,” Bernstein said in the email. “Moving forward, I will always try to be your capable and strategic partner in everything you achieve that makes Stony Brook an elite (but never an elitist) University — a striking example of what public higher education can, should, and must be.”
Some of the changes address student complaints raised during the last academic year. Members of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) held at least two protests last semester, including one on Admitted Students Day, to protest a $90.25 per semester fee increase for graduate students. They argued that fees, which total nearly a month’s pay, are unsustainable for students at their current average annual salary between $20,000 and $25,000.
An email sent to faculty and staff on May 20 signed by former President Samuel L. Stanley initially announced the graduate student pay raise.
“Consistent with faculty and staff input from across the campus, we will provide additional resources to improve course availability for undergraduate students and will include funding to increase the stipends for graduate students earning less than $20,000 to that level,” Stanley wrote in the email.
Andrew Dobbyn, Campus Chair of GSEU, pointed out that the raise only applies to a small percentage of the graduate student employee workforce. Graduate students make between $19,000 and $29,000, with most sitting around $22,000, he said. That’s below a living wage in Suffolk County, according to the MIT living wage calculator, which estimates that number to be about $32,301.
“It was a win, but not the earth-shaking change they’re going to claim it to be,” Dobbyn said. “Stanley announced it after our protest, no doubt to mollify us and mollify the faculty after increasing fees.”
He added that GSEU hopes that the university will start paying a living wage and stop making graduate students pay to work.
Activists from the Peer Mental Health Alliance (PMHA) and the Disability Rights Coalition (DRC) protested last semester as well, arguing that the university was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They most pointedly criticized the university’s accessibility and mental health policies. One complaint was that the handicapped buttons to open doors were frequently broken.
DRC Co-founder and senior business major Naji Nizam said that the university hasn’t reached out to the DRC, but that the group would “surely be reaching out to the administration to offer [its] input and feedback.”
The announcement further marks a shift from budget cuts in recent years. Facing a nearly $35 million deficit, the university slashed courses and implemented a hiring freeze. Classes and majors — including speech and language pathology courses and the undergraduate pharmacology program — were axed. Adjunct professors and lecturers from the foreign language and Writing and Rhetoric departments were let go.
An independent budget analysis sponsored by university professors found that, contrary to claims, Stony Brook has had a positive net cash flow for the past 10 years. University officials criticized the report, which they said was missing crucial details, skewing the results.
Bernstein wrote in the budget outline that Stony Brook does not expect New York State to “provide significant new resources to the SUNY system in the coming years.”
“We will continue to manage our resources efficiently — striving always to link funding decisions with key strategic plans and priorities,” he said.
Correction: The protest hosted by the PMHA was jointly run by the DRC. A previous version of the article omitted the DRC.