Members of the Stony Brook Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) hand-delivered a letter of grievances to the president’s office on April 21, gathering in the administration building at 1 p.m. for a grade-in to continue their Living Wage Campaign.
In addition to the 40 members that gathered and marched for the campaign, at least five police officers were present.
“We’ve never had the police try to discourage us from bringing our group inside,” Gregory Lella, a history PhD candidate and graduate assistant, said. “This was the first time that’s happened, and to me that shows how successful the action is.”
Lella said that this was the most police presence he had seen at a GSEU public demonstration in the past five or six years as part of the union, which represents about 1,100 teaching and graduate assistants on campus.
Beginning with a 10-minute public statement given by Doğa Öner, chief steward of GSEU, the group of about 40 people marched up from the lobby of the administration building to the president’s office to present a letter of their concerns.
“We are working in a three billion dollar university located in one of the richest states,” Öner, a PhD student and teaching assistant in the philosophy department from Turkey, said. “We will not hear any more of how you run up the numbers, how you’re strategically planning your budget. Our lives are more important than running figures in columns in an excel sheet.”
Stony Brook currently operates at a $3.5 billion budget, with about $997 million for academics and research.
“We recognize the high cost of living and stipend issues that our graduate students and other employees face here on Long Island; it is a longstanding issue,” University officials said in an email to The Statesman. “At Stony Brook, we have consistently advocated for increases and funding to support such increases.”
A Department of Housing and Urban Development report lists the extreme poverty level for Suffolk County at $27,300. At the current base stipend of $22,500, Stony Brook teaching and graduate assistants are making over 17% less than than the threshold of extreme poverty in Suffolk County.
The current agreement between graduate workers has “a total compensation package that includes insurance, pension, paid leave, and a location adjustment among other benefits. This is in addition to tuition scholarships,” University officials said. “We have increased graduate student employee stipends well above the contractual requirement and recently added to those stipends retroactive to Oct. 1, 2021, so that all State TAs and GAs received an increase proportionate to their appointments.”
Article 5.8 of the current contract between the state of New York and the GSEU states that the minimum annual stipend for full assistantships during the 2022-2023 academic year shall be $10,799, with incumbents of positions receiving a 2% increase each year. Stony Brook’s base stipend of $22,500 is more than double the state minimum.
A survey GSEU sent out to its members on March 23 found that 99% of graduate workers do not think their stipend is “enough to live comfortably, and to focus on [one’s] research, without financial worry and stress.”
Only 9% of respondents said their research was not impacted by their financial stress and work obligations, and just 7% reported that their mental health was unaffected due to these conditions.
“I’ve had lots of classes where I’ve been the TA but I had to take over primary teaching duties, got to do all of the grading, all while receiving the lowest possible wage,” Kaya Turan, a PhD student and TA in the art history department, said.
Lella also reported experiencing difficulty focusing on the research needed to complete his own academic studies, having to pick up multiple additional adjunct professor positions in addition to the classes he is a graduate assistant for currently. His completion has already been delayed by a year.
According to University officials, Stony Brook has launched a new Graduate and Health Sciences admissions office to provide support for prospective graduate students, and will be convening within the next academic year to review the policies and practices of doctoral education.
“Areas of initial focus will include recruitment, development of multi-year financial support packages, evaluating educational training experiences (including research and teaching assistantships), and time to degree challenges,” officials said.
An independent budget report from 2018 conducted by Howard Bunsis, an accounting professor at Eastern Michigan University, found that graduate teaching assistants make up the largest instructional body at Stony Brook University.
“The number of faculty has generally increased, but there are more graduate teaching assistants than tenure/tenure-track faculty,” the report stated. “It is very revealing that the largest group of people who teach at Stony Brook is graduate teaching assistants.”
Bunsis was hired in 2018 to investigate the University’s claims of poor financial standing, but the report found just the opposite.
Lella is confident in the campaign, as he sees that although the university insists they do not have the money to increase wages, “every time we launch a successful campaign, they magically find it.”
Most recently, the University has waived graduate fees and increased the base stipend from $20,000 to $22,500, according to Öner.
“I have the privilege of savings, I have the privilege of citizenship and not having to pay the extra fees international students pay, I have the privilege of winning fellowships, and I still have trouble making ends meet,” Lella said. “Imagine an international student or a first generation grad student, or someone without the savings that I had trying to do this. It locks them out.”
Ultimately, Öner hopes the public statement and letter to the president’s office will spread awareness on “what people who make this university possible are facing.”
A petition in support of the Living Wage Campaign was first sent out in April 2021, and has since collected 991 signatories.
“We will continue to work to strengthen graduate education and support for our graduate student employees who are key partners in our quest for academic and research excellence,” University officials said.