Binghamton University is proposing to increase the stipends for its teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs). This would be great, except the increase only applies to new graduate students, beginning fall 2016. The current graduate students will make $2,000-$7,000 less per year than incoming doctoral students. Provost Donald Nieman and Dean Susan Strehle met with the graduate students at a Town Hall meeting on December 3 to defend their claim that this will make Binghamton University a more “competitive” university for recruiting new graduate students, but their arguments were flawed.
Dean Strehle’s first argument was a logically faulty claim that the offer of higher wages for incoming TAs and GAs would draw more students with greater merit than the ones currently working at BU. She explained that the concept of “Equal Work for Equal Pay” is naïve, because “in the real world,” workers are not paid the same wages for the same work — they are paid differentially based on exhibiting the various qualities sought by hiring institutions. Many graduate TAs and GAs worked in the “real world” for a number of years before beginning their PhD programs; they know that the “real world” isn’t fair. But that is not a valid reason for excluding current GAs and TAs from the proposed stipend increases. Dean Strehle’s claim that the proposed pay discrepancy between current and incoming graduate students is merit-based is wrong — if this decision was actually based on merit, then Binghamton would pay more to the TAs and GAs who already have a great deal of experience in their current positions at BU.
Dean Strehle also argued that paying incoming GAs and TAs more would not disadvantage current students. Instead, current students’ degrees will actually be worth more in the future because stipend increases for incoming students will strengthen BU’s “reputation,” thereby raising the value of all degrees obtained from the University. I couldn’t disagree more — and such an argument suggests that the administration is woefully unaware of the demands the academic world places upon graduate students. Stipend disparities between incoming and current graduate students will create a class system — a hierarchy of the have and have-nots — and the consequences will extend far beyond the time spent in graduate school.
Graduate students must tirelessly cultivate a professional presence in order to be competitive in the job market upon graduation; professional development is vital. This includes not only doing original research, but also presenting this research at distant and expensive professional conferences that are also critical venues for networking with potential employers. By paying incoming students more, BU is providing them with a significantly greater opportunity for professional development than current students. They will be able to afford the necessary costs of professional development — registration fees, transportation costs, lodging costs — placing them at a substantial advantage relative to current graduate students. The slight increase in “reputation” that the proposed wage change would supposedly bring BU is not nearly enough to ensure a bright future for all graduates. The inherent economic inequality of this plan will cause significant, life-long differences in the career outcomes of BU graduates, even if the University moves up a few spots in the rankings.
Offering incoming students greater stipends will only make BU more competitive on paper. In reality, the effects of this proposal will cause much more damage than can be compensated for by any change in ranking. What will really raise graduate student numbers, increase the profile of the University, and build its reputation as a premier public university? The current graduate students. We are the people who communicate to the academic world the quality of the programs, the cutting-edge research conducted at the University and the level of support provided by the administration. In the “real world,” well-supported, successful graduate students are what will truly make Binghamton competitive.
Ashley Burch, Ph.D. Student in Anthropology