A sign that reads, “Do I: A) Pay To Eat B) Pay My Fees” displayed on a car during the graduate student car rally around Circle Road. The students were protesting increased student fees on Sept, 8. ALEK LEWIS/THE STATESMAN

Stony Brook University graduate students in more than a dozen cars protested the increased student fees during an hour-long car rally around Circle Road on Sept. 8.

Students attached signs to their cars that read “beep beep, abolish fees,” “grad fees=2 paychecks” and “grad fees=wage theft.” The rally was in support of a letter authored by graduate students and signed by more than 470 graduate students, undergraduate students and affiliates. The letter argues that increased fees are damaging to the income of graduate students.

The letter in question is addressed to Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis; Provost and Senior VP for Academic Affairs Michael Bernstein; and Robert Megna, the Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer for the State University of New York (SUNY).

“Graduate students will now have to devote additional mental effort and resources toward meeting our basic needs while striving to pay exorbitant fees,” the letter reads. “This extreme financial burden will impede our ability to conduct high-quality research that attracts world-wide prestige to Stony Brook and the SUNY System.”

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From Fall 2018 to Spring 2020, the total cost of graduate in-state student tuition and fees have increased by $998.46 for in-state students and $1,113.46 for out-of-state students. $722.96 of the increase lies in the escalating cost of the required student health insurance, which can be waived if students have their own health insurance provider. 

“Graduate students intend to protest these fees because these fees may cost us our lives and our livelihoods,” the letter reads. “Your fee increases force us to spend our valuable time working second jobs to subsidize public education and organizing to respond to the injustices we experience instead of producing new and interesting research thus extending our time to degree and negatively impacting our job prospects, lifetime earning potential, and Stony Brook University’s placement metrics.”

Bryan Howl, a second year graduate student worker in geoscience, was one of the organizers of the rally and authors of the letter. He plans to leave the university and instead complete his Ph.D. at a different institution due to the fee increase. He believes that the university’s increase of fees is hypocritical, and negatively affects all graduate students who are often employed as teaching assistants and researchers for the university.

“Administration has been making a big show of support for increasing diversity in academia and doing more to support BIPOC students,” Howl wrote in an email to The Statesman. “Meanwhile I’d argue that these fee increases hit those very students the hardest. Students without the backing of generational wealth (the kind that this country has systematically denied to black families), whose parents can’t help them with expenses when things get tight, those are the first ones to get squeezed out of the institution by these rising fees.”

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In an email to graduate students on Sept. 10 that was obtained by The Statesman, the office of the university president gave context and sound reasoning as to why the fees have increased and said they are committed to working with students who are struggling financially.

“Comprehensive fees are a means to develop and maintain high quality services and programs that enhance the student experience for all enrolled students,” the email read. “These programs, including transportation, health, career, technology and recreation, among others, are not funded as a fee-for-service; rather all students contribute to funding these programs and have access to them as needed. The University depends on these fees to operate and maintain the programs and services.”

Howl said the emails response wasn’t the outcome the graduate student community hoped.

“We are not satisfied with this response, as it makes no motion towards reducing or eliminating the fees,” he wrote. “As usual, the administration’s response is to justify the fees while ignoring calls to eliminate them for student workers.“

Javier Uriarte, an associate professor for the university’s department of Hispanic Language and Literature, was one of more than 30 faculty members who signed off on the letter. He said that the fees instituted by the university reflect badly on how they value graduate students. 

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“As a Research 1 university, we should treat graduate students as what they are: top researchers and specialists in their fields,” Uriarte wrote in an email to The Statesman. “It is not just that our fellowships are extremely weak and do not compare to what other institutions (including public ones such as Rutgers and CUNY) in the NY area (our main competitors) offer their students. On top of that, the university charges students a very significant amount with respect to the salaries they obtain from the same university.”

He said that when students’ living expenses outside of the university — like rent and groceries — weigh heavily on their shoulders, the result is a hindered focus on their teaching and academic performance.

“They cannot really focus on their research and teaching, which should be their only focus during their PhD years,” Uriarte wrote. “They are stressed and anxious because of the economic uncertainty that their incredibly precarious financial situations cause. Cancelling these unfair and harmful fees (do grad student fees really make a difference for the finances of SUNY? because they make a HUGE difference for the lives of graduate students) should be the first and most urgent step towards offering dignifying and fair working and research conditions to our students.”

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