By LeRoy Southworth
It was with a great deal of self-confidence—hands thrust securely in pockets, feet firm upon the Wang Center’s floor—that Lawrence Martin, Dean of the Graduate School, faced the enraged graduate population of Stony Brook University on March 6. The meeting was organized by the Graduate Student Organization (GSO)—which occupies itself with pretty much everything involving grad students—and addressed one main grievance: why does Stony Brook offer its new Teaching Assistants (for the academic year 2008-2009) more money than its old ones ($2000 more, to be precise)?
In an accent reminiscent of England’s greener hills, Martin offered a twenty-minute explanation that, rather than being a continuous narrative, revolved around certain themes. Old Teaching Assistants (TAs) should not be angry because the new raise makes the university “more competitive”, thus creating a better environment for study. Another reason why he claimed to be “surprised” by the issues students had with the unbalanced raise, was that a general raise of $2000 had already been implemented last semester, together with the implementation of new scholarships that offer support for up to four years. President Kenny, Martin explained, struggles with every decision she makes, and she has been the first Stony Brook president in a long time to put such a general payment raise in effect.
Expressed reactions from those present were strong and numerous. The issue of seniority often came up: why would anyone pay inexperienced personnel more than veteran staff, staff that often manages classes on their own with hardly any help from faculty? Martin admitted that he “did not consider” this issue when he signed his name to the recommended raise of $2000 for new students only, but added that the science departments seemed to have no trouble at all accepting the new policy.
To this the objection came the retort that, plain and simple, science departments have more funds than the humanities (almost all PhD-students in the humanities are TAs, as opposed to the in the sciences, where Research Assistants (RAs) are predominant) and can therefore more easily make the new raise in funds a general one.
Most people who reacted also took offence at the very style of Martin’s speech: in the train of his monologues, graduate students were all too easily equated with material goods. Students who chafed at this pointed out that this is, most of all, a moral problem. One concluded, “We are not good enough [as opposed to the new students, who get paid more.]”
The grilling though, was all but over. Gradually the true concerns of grads became clear. No materialism drove their questioning, but rather bread-and-butter issues. The expenses of housing and living on Long Island came up often, and one irate grad student even claimed that to live on $15,000 (about the stipend old grads receive) is to live below the poverty line. To this, Martin shook his shoulders, looked at the ground and began to expound on the difficulties the university has with housing its students: the funds Albany allots are hardly enough to expand residential capacities, exactly because of the great costs that Long Island, as an environment, forces upon its inhabitants. Martin said the administration was constantly struggling with this problem, and stressed his deep concern for the fate of his students, new and old.
This emotional statement did not prevent people from calling attention to some points in Shirley Strum-Kenny’s already legendary five-year plan. That plan includes promises, both of an additional raise in stipends, and of the creation of an environment that will produce “happier students.” To most, it was unclear how creating this division in the grad student population—between two groups with unequal pay—was going to promote all-round happiness and mirth.
As the initial ire died down to a sustained discontent, Dean Martin was kindly asked to improve his communications with the students for which he is responsible. No grad representative had been consulted about the new policy—hence Martin’s surprise at the reactions. His attempts to end the evening on a “positive note” were curtly countered by GSO vice-president Louis Esparza, who stated, “You screwed up.”
When asked, later on, about her opinion on the problem, Liliana Naydan, current president of GSO, replied that the raise ought to be based on a principle of “fairness and consistency”, quite unlike the “diminished investment” that we have right now. She further expressed her hopes that graduate students would form a “united front” against injustices, even if only certain segments of the population (the TAs) are affected by what is perceived to be bad treatment. As a token of this solidarity, she planned to work with the Graduate Student Employees Union to further a common goal: a universal raise in stipends.As an epilogue to this, consider the current thought of Dean Martin on the matter. After the demonstration on April 2, he was quoted in that day’s Newsday article “Stony Brook U. graduates protest pay disparities” by Olivia Winslow. Martin told Newsday that the money TAs get is a “fellowship”, implicitly denying that their efforts amount to work. In addition, he also referred to vague additional funds and the fact that SBU pays its TAs double the amount agreed with their union. No mention was made of how old that contract is, or of the rising costs of living on Long Island.
However, Ms. Naydan recently stated that the Dean is trying to “make amends” after the April 2 demonstration. From now on, he will be working more closely with the GSO on the raise issue, to the point of attending meetings. Naydan looks very favourable upon this change, although the question remains whether the Dean’s resolutions will have palpable results. The fight seems far from over.