On Nov. 4, members of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) approached Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger outside of his office to present him with roughly 700 signatures on a petition which supported the abolishment of broad-based fees for graduate assistants (GAs) and teaching assistants (TAs). These fees, which are required payments from all graduate students to the University, amount to $1,000 or more per semester. The GSEU petition comes after a history of legislative actions taken by graduate student employees advocating for the fees to be waived, culminating in a March 15 New York State Senate Budget Resolution that was ultimately not signed into law by previous New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo for 2021-2022.
In a video of the GSEU interaction with Stenger, Stenger made a verbal commitment to waive the fees, stating he hopes to do so within the next two academic semesters. The GSEU also had a productive meeting with Stenger at a later date regarding the logistics behind finding a way for the University to fund hundreds of TAs within the year, as Stenger hopes. Along with Stenger, the GSEU has received vocal support from Donna Lupardo, New York state assemblywoman for the Southern Tier. Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, wrote in an email to Pipe Dream that the University expects a plan in place by the next semester.
Though the verbal support and commitments indicate that the University is moving in the right direction, the Editorial Board believes the University should make a more binding commitment to its students and employees. By putting this agreement in writing with concrete deadlines, not only is the University forced to hold themselves accountable, but the graduate student employees who have been working tirelessly to abolish these fees can feel a greater sense of trust in BU administrators.
Even beyond a written commitment, the University administration needs to want to waive these fees for themselves. As Sarah Resnick, a first-year Ph.D. student studying management, pointed out in our recent news coverage on the topic, these fees can quickly become a problem from an equity and accessibility standpoint. Administrators should want to make BU a competitive, affordable option for graduate students of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, BU students, staff and faculty have all seen administration fall through on binding commitments, such as the 2019 Harpur College of Arts and Sciences cluster hiring initiative that was quickly set back with no official University announcement and persistent delays in hiring fulfillments almost two years later. Therefore, administrators must bring their own passion and dedication to this commitment to follow through on their promise.
There is much debate over whether graduate student employees should be forced to pay the same broad-based fees as BU’s regular undergraduate cohorts, but we believe the answer to this is simple. GAs and TAs, though active learners at BU, are University employees. As such, they should be exempt from these fees just like every other BU faculty member. This is especially true considering how vague the process of allocating these fees actually is. All students, both undergraduate and graduate, at least deserve to know what these thousands of dollars pay for.
Donald Nieman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, voiced the opposing viewpoint that these fees are necessary in the sense that all students utilize the resources they fund in an email to a graduate TA in February 2021. While it is true that funding for student services comes from these fees, here is where the essential distinction comes in to play. The University would never expect academic faculty members to fork more than $1,000 of their yearly salary for resources they hardly use. Additionally, the work they provide is more than enough repayment for these resources should they choose to utilize them at all. Graduate student employees, who are crucial components of nearly all University courses, are no different. Their work should be valued just as highly as that of the professors they assist.
Additionally, in the path to find funding for these graduate student employees, the University should not impose a program that is more detrimental to students than helpful. In other words, the financial burden should not unduly fall upon undergraduate students to temporarily satisfy the graduate TAs. The University must search for a lasting, permanent solution which benefits everyone.