Alvaro Gonzalez Reynaud/Design Manager

Graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) are calling for the abolishment of broad-based fees, which they claim constitute wage theft by Binghamton University.

During family weekend in late September, visitors on the BU campus were met by members of the University’s Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) handing out informational flyers regarding broad-based fees that graduate students pay to the University. These flyers were part of the latest ongoing push by the GSEU to inform the public of these fees and the problems associated with them.

Last semester, the GSEU clashed with administration over how to handle a student making a racially insensitive comment about a TA in a sociology class. Following comments made over a leaked email, the GSEU called for the resignation of Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) Director and Assistant Vice President for Diversity Nicole Sirju-Johnson, as well as calling for greater accountability by the administration.

Emily Blakely, a fifth-year Ph.D. student studying psychology, outlined the basic nature of the fees the GSEU is fighting against.

“A lot of graduate students don’t know this upon coming into the University, but we need to pay about $2,000 a year in fees,” Blakely said. “Most of [those are] the same fees [that] undergraduates have to pay, but a lot of it actually goes toward things unnecessary for graduate students or that are required as part of our work … I know that graduate students have been really upset by this for several years.”

According to BU’s website, the expected fees for graduate students were about $1,235 the fall 2021 semester.

Sarah Resnick, a first-year Ph.D. student studying management, explained the way these fees are structured and their effect on student income.

“Broad-based fees are not covered by my department, so I am considered an employee but I am also considered a student,” Resnick said. “While I get paychecks every two weeks that add up to [$18,500] every academic year, I am also required to pay $1,000 each semester in broad-based fees. So what that means is that my take-home pay is about 10 to 18 [percent] lower than advertised. This becomes problematic from an equity and accessibility perspective.”

Resnick said the purpose of broad-based fees can appear ambiguous and limitless in scope.

“[The fees] range in transparency and in how limited they are in what they can be used by,” Resnick said. “For example, an academic excellence fee can be used to bring someone who’s being interviewed for a faculty role to campus. [It covers] literally anything that can be remotely tied to the academic achievement of a department, and the fact that that is coming out of the pocket of graduate students seems a little ridiculous when you put it like that.”

Given increased awareness about broad-based fees and their unspecified applications, the last few years have seen an increased movement across both BU and the SUNY system to have these fees removed statewide.

A clause regarding the waiving of broad-based fees for graduate student employees was included in a March 15 New York state Senate Budget Resolution, but was not signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in early April.

Blakely was a part of the team that pushed for the resolution, which saw bipartisan support before an untimely end that Blakely described along with detailing the University’s response to the movement.

“[It went] all the way up to [Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who decided] that it wasn’t a priority for his budget last year,” Blakely said. “So we got really, really close, but at the same time [BU] was coming out and saying, ‘No, we still think that fees are fair for graduate workers. We still think that you guys have to carry the burden of running a university,’ when we already supply so much labor.”

Donna Lupardo, New York state assemblywoman for the Southern Tier, said she supports the movement, and that a new governor may create more opportunities for graduate TAs.

“As a former graduate TA at [BU], I know firsthand how tough these fees can be,” Lupardo wrote in an email. “That is one of the reasons I cosponsor legislation [Assembly Bill (A6382)] which would exclude graduate TAs from these mandatory fees. [Gov. Kathy Hochul] is very interested in hearing about the challenges New Yorkers are facing; students in particular. I would strongly suggest organized advocacy be planned early in the process. I am happy to advise.”

Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, said the University provides a multitude of resources for graduate students, including the Provost’s Doctoral Fellowship Summer Program, which offers a $4,000 summer award renewable for four years to around 60 Ph.D. students yearly. Yarosh also referenced a recurring $2.3 million investment, which started in 2016, in order to increase Ph.D. stipends, and said the University is looking for new ways to help cover student fees.

“We are currently examining how [BU] can provide scholarships covering student fees to fully funded, full-time Ph.D. students,” Yarosh wrote in an email. “Fees cannot simply be waived as they support critical services to all students on our campus, including transportation, health services, technology and others. So we must identify a funding model that will allow us to pay the fees Ph.D. students incur. That is complicated as the vast majority of funding for stipends and tuition scholarships is in college and school budgets. We are currently exploring a range of options and expect to have a plan in place by the end of the semester.”

On Nov. 4, members of GSEU presented BU President Harvey Stenger with the results of a petition aimed at abolishing broad based fees for graduate student TAs. The petition had been signed by about 700 people. While addressing the GSEU, Stenger said that BU is committed to paying for broad-based fees for graduate student TAs, and hopes this will happen within the next two semesters. A video of the conversation can be found here.

In a Feb. 19 email to a graduate TA who wished to remain anonymous, Donald Nieman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, outlined his stance regarding the fees. Nieman did not respond to Pipe Dream’s request for comment.

“The fees that students pay — whether they are TAs and [graduate assistants] or no — support a campus infrastructure that provides essential services that all students utilize,” Nieman wrote. “Of course, some use them more extensively than others, and some use them not at all. But they are there when needed and are critical to supporting members of the student community. I believe that the system is fair and that graduate students receive good value for the fees they are assessed.”

Graduate TAs like Maggie Hames, GSEU mobilizer for archaeology organization and a master’s and Ph.D. student studying archeology, disagreed with this argument.

“I do have alternatives, but I still have to pay regardless,” Hames said. “I still have to pay a transportation fee, but I’m driving my own car to school. It could be cheaper for me to print things at my home … But I still need to pay a technology fee. I still have to pay a card fee, even though if I needed to replace my card I would have to pay to replace my card. I’m not quite sure why this is a great value, especially if I’m not using a lot of these services or double-paying for them. I’m an employee, I shouldn’t even have to pay them in the first place.”

The pro-fees stance is not universal across the SUNY system, as the University at Buffalo did away with broad-based fees for full-time, fully funded Ph.D. students earlier this year. The motivations behind this were stated by Provost A. Scott Weber in a UBNow article published on June 11.

“The additional support for our Ph.D. students and programs closely aligns with university goals, including providing students with exceptional educational experiences and being recognized among the top 25 public research universities in the nation,” Weber said.

While the movement at BU is currently at a legislative standstill, Blakely believes the fight of the GSEU is one that can have an impact statewide.

“The fact is that if this is something that is on paper at that level, then it is something that cannot be changed,” Blakely said. “We are interested in winning this at a campus level … But we want this to go to all campuses.”