By Danielle Modica | December 5, 2022
The University at Albany Chapter of the Graduate Student Employee Union (GSEU) is continuing efforts to eliminate all graduate fees through a petition to UAlbany administration started on Oct. 23.
Photo from a GSEU UAlbany Chapter protest in the Campus Center West
Photo Credit: GSEU UAlbany Chapter Instagram
Fall 2022 semesterly fees are $1,187.50 for both in-and-out of state residents across all graduate programs, according to UAlbany’s cost & aid webpage.
According to a University statement from Director of Communications Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, the broad-based fees are used to pay for “critical services” including health, mental health and technology programs for all students. This cost, according to the UAlbany GSEU, causes graduate workers to make “major sacrifices” in order to pay.
“...[Graduate workers are] skipping meals or grocery trips, urban foraging, working second or even third jobs outside the University, taking on new debt, paying exorbitant late fees due the inability to afford paying a lump sum of fees, even having to donate blood plasma to be able to pay their fees,” the petition reads.
UAlbany GSEU members initially lobbied at the New York State Capitol Building for overall GSEU fee elimination in February 2021 with the support of higher education union United University Professions (UUP). Based on the ASP’s research, no significant outcome was reached from these efforts.
“Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants across the SUNY system earn an average assistantship of $15,000 and are required to pay back to the University, on average, between 14%-25% of this amount in the form of University fees,” a resolution from UUP reads. “As educators and University professionals, UUP is committed to supporting graduate student learning and professionalization. As Union members, we recognize that this includes being committed to the quality of life of graduate students”
A formal petition was delivered to UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez’s office on Oct. 28, 2021, including signatures from 600 graduate employees, undergraduate students, faculty, alumni, and staff demanding the abolition of fees for graduate student employees.
“The fee per semester is literally one-month’s rent,” an anonymous GSEU member said. “That could’ve been used for summer months when I am not funded [by employee stipends]”
The most recent petition went public on Oct. 23, 2022 as an open letter to UAlbany administration. The letter will be sent to President Rodríguez, Provost Carol Kim, Dean of Graduate Studies Dr. Kevin Williams, and Vice President of Finances Todd Foreman after 600 signatures are met.
“Graduate student employees in the State University of New York (SUNY) system are the labor backbone of the entire institution,” the petition reads. “On campuses across the state, graduate students teach a majority of classes, grade most of the coursework and exams, and perform essential research and administrative functions every single day. Yet we are some of the most poorly paid among SUNY employees.”
According to the 2022-2023 Graduate Assistantships, Fellowships, and Tuition Scholarships Guidelines for Students, “Graduate or Teaching Assistantship stipends are considered to be taxable income even where there is a specific requirement for training for all students in a particular program.”
Graduate fees are not deducted from stipends and are to be paid alongside tuition.
“Because the money I have to pay in fees is not deducted from my income, I am ineligible for SNAP and other government services,” another anonymous GSEU member said.
“UAlbany’s graduate and teaching assistants are extremely important members of our community who make valuable contributions to teaching and research on campus,” Carleo-Evangelist said. “That’s why the University has invested more than $1.1 million since 2019 to increase support for doctoral students despite budget reductions in other areas of the University.”
According to Carleo-Evangelist, UAlbany also invested $582,000 in graduate and teaching assistant support at the start of the Fall 2022 semester to increase stipends by $1,000 to $2,000 annually, as well as fund partial fee scholarships that provided about 620 students with an average relief of $667. According to the petition, the GSEU sees this fee scholarship as a “bad faith gesture” and an “insult” to graduate worker solidarity.
“That was a significant financial commitment by the University at a time when campus finances are still recovering from the pandemic,” Carleo-Evangelist said. “The portion of the fees not covered by the fee scholarships are the broad-based fees that are paid by every UAlbany student to cover essential services like mental health care, transportation and technology that are available to every student.”
The petition also claims that at the state level, the GSEU has “successfully eliminated” fees for graduate workers at several other SUNY campuses. Stony Brook University, the University at Buffalo and Binghamton University were those listed.
“The University at Albany is now lagging behind other schools by maintaining an adapted fee scheme for its graduate workers; there have been and will continue to be consequences,” the petition reads. “The University at Albany will find itself unable to compete with other SUNY campuses for top graduate degree applicants due to the campus administration's obsession with systemic wage theft.”
According to a tweet by Binghamton University’s GSEU, all three universities received a full elimination of fees for only some of their graduate employees through graduate fee scholarships implemented in the Spring 2021 semester. Annual base stipends were also increased up to a total of $22,000.
As of Nov. 3 2022, the University at Buffalo GSEU is still petitioning for eliminated fees for all graduate employees. No updates have been made to confirm any fee elimination from then to now.
“We, community members of the University at Albany and allies beyond its walls, demand the immediate abolition of all broad-based fees for all graduate student workers at the University at Albany. We will continue to take further public action until our demand is met,” the closing line of the petition reads.
“In a perfect situation we would prefer to eliminate fees entirely, but that simply is not possible without a dramatic increase in state support,” Carleo-Evangelist said. “UAlbany stands ready to join with the GSEU in advocating for that support.”
UAlbany GSEU has yet to respond to ASP attempts for direct contact. The “Abolish Broad-Based Fees at UAlbany'' petition is available on GSEU social media pages via a Google form. Petition updates will be shared as they occur.