Written by Physics and Astronomy Graduate Students on August 12th, 2020
Dear physics faculty,
We are the graduate students of the physics department. The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, our students and faculty alike. Much to our dismay however, we learnt that the graduate students are facing a second blow from the SBU administration: this administration just increased the graduate student fee yet again. For comparison, the graduate fee in 2015 was $730 per semester, and in this coming semester (Fall 2020) it has become $1330 per semester, excluding tuition and student medical insurances. The SBU administration has had this draconian practice for years and it got us here: we have to pay more than 10% of our annual physics TA/RA gross income to be a graduate student here.
The two most egregious items in graduate fee are the transportation fee ($210/sem) and the technology fee ($430/sem), which steadily increased over the years. There had been ongoing disputes about the utility and the price of campus transportation even pre-pandemic, but never mind that: SBU seems to be nullifying the automatic waiver of transportation fee for those who don’t live on campus, as of the drafting of this letter. The technology fee on the other hand has been universally unpopular not only due to its price but also its utter opaqueness: we have never figured out which of the technological services we used are really covered by it and what is making it inflate so fast, despite our repeated requests to the administration for clarification.
Many collective actions have been taken by the students and the union in the past: we have tried bombarding the administration email with grievance letters, only to receive a standardized and half-hearted explanation of why nothing can be changed; we have tried having our student representatives negotiate with high SBU administrators, only to let our representatives experience a dehumanizing scolding; we have organized a large protest on campus, which might have helped establish a minimum SBU TA/RA wage (still much lower than the physics TA/RA wage), but the rampage of graduate fee increase has not abated in the least. The university likes to brand itself as a champion for diversity and equality, yet the financial injustice it inflicts on us very often hits our minority students the hardest. It is hard not to notice the irony when SBU issued so many open letters declaring support for social justice in the wake of the George Floyd protest. This is relentless hypocrisy.
In a recent letter of the administration in reply to our union, the administration says they will initiate a two-year phasing-out plan for the technology fee (for G5-status students only), yet right before the so-called phasing-out they decided to increase the technology fee by $100/sem. We are not so foolish to only listen to what they say but ignore what they do: given the administration’s track record, we have every reason to believe the overall fee will be yet higher even after the two-year phase-out period, just with the word “technology fee” replaced by some other obscure name.
We the graduate students are feeling assaulted on all fronts. We feel the assaults from the pandemic, from the precarious visa policies, and most of all from the financial stress imposed by the very institution that is supposed to be the last line of defense of our students’ rights: Stony Brook University.
For many of us, the physics department is nothing but a warm and welcoming place of academic excellence. And without reservations we have been encouraging younger students to apply for our physics program. However we are finding it increasingly hard to do so in good faith because of the financial ruin SBU might bring to them. Indeed, some of us have already observed the deterrence effect on the prospective students when they learnt they needed to make a down payment before receiving their first paycheck, although this is often circumvented with the help of our department.
Over the years, we have exhausted all our means to improve our condition on this steep uphill slope, but all we have achieved is to have our condition deteriorate a little slower. It is out of hopelessness and despair that we are sending this letter pleading for your help. We understand in many ways your hands are also tied, but we believe the faculty must have more leverage than us students. We would appreciate any form of help you can come up with, for us and for our even more underpaid and unfortunate peers from other departments: your personnel resources, your public relation resources or your public display of solidarity and broadcast of our message, etc. Anything helps.
~ Signed by 113 current and former graduate students (representing well more than half of those currently enrolled), as well as 35 Faculty (again representing more than half of those currently employed).
For recent coverage of SBU graduate students actions against increasing student fees, see this release from The Statesman.