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Graduate and teaching assistants decry plan to increase fees at Stony Brook

John Klecker, left, Rebecca Drucker and Kenneth Davidson

John Klecker, left, Rebecca Drucker and Kenneth Davidson were among Stony Brook University graduate students protesting Saturday against what they say is a planned student fee increase of $180 set to be implemented later this year. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Graduate and teaching assistants at Stony Brook University said Saturday they were against an increase in mandatory student fees that they say is planned by the university’s administration later this year.

On average, teaching assistants and graduate assistants at the university are paid $20,000 annually,  said Caroline Propersi-Grossman, chief steward of the 800-plus-member Stony Brook Graduate Student Employees Union. The union says the university is planning a $180 fee hike, and as a result,  those assistants would be required to pay back $2,078 in fees, or 10 percent of their wages — which comes out to one month’s salary for teaching assistants, protesters said.

Union members — who make up the university's organized workforce of teaching assistants and graduate assistants — showed up Saturday at the campus during an open house day for newly admitted students with signs protesting the fee hike. Protesters hoped to raise awareness among students about it.

Propersi-Grossman, a teaching assistant for U.S. history at the university who works between 20 and 30 hours a week for two classes outside of her dissertation research, said while her work is rewarding, the wages she was paid made the fee hike “unsustainable” for her.

“It’s our job and it’s our livelihood, and you shouldn’t have to live in poverty to get an education or be a teacher,” said Propersi-Grossman, 25, who lives with two roommates in Port Jefferson Station.

Gregory Lella, a teaching assistant in history, said many union members lived in subpar housing off campus because that was all they could afford. A fee hike, he said, would make it harder for them to get by.

“Since the fees were announced very recently, we wanted to act very quickly, and we also wanted to make newly admitted students aware of the conditions of labor that some of their instructors are under,” said Lella, 28, a Staten Island native who lives in Central Islip.

John Klecker, 25, a union member from Minneapolis on a fellowship at Stony Brook and formerly a teaching assistant for general chemistry, said already he had to budget very carefully with only the fees he was paying.

“It’s like I don’t have a job unless I pay some of my paycheck back to the university, so it’s really a form of wage theft,” said Klecker.

Protesters said the university had not been responsive to their attempts to discuss the fees.

Stony Brook University press representatives did not immediately return requests for comment Saturday.

A larger protest is planned on campus May 1, said Propersi-Grossman.

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