Say No to SBU’s and President McInnis’ Institutional Discrimination Against International Grad Workers

SBU GSEU International Student Workers Committee

August 11, 2023

For a school that prides itself as a champion of international students with a robust international community, Stony Brook’s administration fares no better than most other neoliberal higher education institutions, especially in their treatment of international grad workers. The discourse of diversity and inclusion remains hypocritical when administration not only makes the lives of international grad workers harder but also remains silent and inactive on the institutional mechanisms that put international grad workers in a disadvantaged position. 

On July 26th, SBU administration announced that they are increasing the international student fee from $100 to $160 per semester, an increase of 60%. To any of you for whom this does not seem like a high amount, we would like to remind you that SBU grad workers live in poverty: our base stipends are $22,500 while the lowest poverty level in Suffolk County is $32,500. This fee is justified as financing the services that international students receive, such as maintaining the international student office. Domestic students were similarly charged fees in the past including a transportation fee, technology fee, and many others, and these fees were justified as giving grad workers services for their work in the university.

GSEU's International Student Workers Commitee (ISWC) continues to fight for the rights of

International Student Grad Workers

These other fees charged to domestic students and international students alike were abolished and replaced with a fee scholarship instituted in 2021, following a grad worker-led fee strike, wherein more than 500 workers boycotted the fees and pledged to not pay them. The main injustice of these fees was that we were being asked to pay to work, because the administration was charging us necessary materials and services required for us to be workers in this university, workers who constitute the largest body of instructional labor. We emphasized then and now that the international student fee was no different. International grad workers need the international services to be workers just as the domestic workers need their technological and logistical services. 

However, there has been no explanation from President McInnis or SBU admin on why the new scholarship covers the fees that domestic students pay but not those that influence only international grad workers. President McInnis still takes pride in the fee abolition as her own initiative, never mentioning the fact that upon her arrival, all fees were significantly increased. The fee scholarship was not a project championed by President McInnis, it was in fact only instituted after GSEU’s fee strike. The SBU website states that the fee scholarship was instituted to elevate the performance of SBU as a leading institution. Why, then, did the fee scholarship leave international students behind? Designating the international student fee as not a “broad based fee” is not a satisfactory answer. This is simply an appeal to an arbitrary and institutionally constructed category that leaves this extra burden on international grad workers as an exception, as if our hardship is more justified or aside from the others. It is clear that even if it was not a “broad-based fee,” international student fee could have easily also been eliminated by an administration that does not want to place extra burden on international students.

International grad workers already begin their education process in a disadvantaged position compared to domestic students, and institutional mechanisms on the state and university level further the disadvantage of international grad workers. Many domestic workers have to work secondary jobs to sustain themselves. International grad workers simply cannot find another job due to visa restrictions; they are required to undergo a complex visa process, at the end of which they can usually only receive jobs within the discipline. 

Flyers distributed by GSEU's ISWC about international student rights and perks of joining GSEU

There have been many discussions about the conditions of grad workers at SBU. In these discussions, GSEU asked both President McInnis and Provost Lejuez about the situation for international students. Administration prides itself as providing a comparable salary to grad workers at peer institutions. They never bring into question the poverty line. This merely amounts to saying that they are letting grad workers live in poverty, but only to the degree that others do as well. Grad worker poverty is an issue that spans across universities and it’s a well-known lesson that any parent would teach their children that no wrong can be justified by showing examples of others perpetuating the same bad behavior.

However, what’s worse is President McInnis’ and Provost Lejuez’s continuous silence on the financial conditions of international grad workers. We have asked clearly many times: how can international grad workers, who cannot have outside jobs, subsist on below poverty salaries? We have yet to receive a response. Instead, President McInnis continues to worsen working conditions for international grad workers, not utilizing opportunities to elevate their conditions.

President McInnis repeatedly mentions financial restrictions as a reason to not be able to increase grad worker stipends. In the last session of the NYS budget, GSEU won a state-wide campaign to eliminate all fees across SUNY. This win means that the state will provide the budget to eliminate all fees over the course of 4 years. On May 11, we called SBU admin and President McInnis to use the first round of the budget relief to eliminate the international student fee. SBU’s current fee scholarship already covers grad fees in the internal budget. President McInnis could eliminate the international student fee now while continuing to increase stipends over the next 4 years without changing anything in SBU’s internal budget—by using this extra state funding won by grad workers for grad workers. Instead, she and the SBU admin prefer to increase this fee, placing international workers in an even more severe financial position. To this we can add the recent Simon’s Foundation gift, the largest unrestricted gift ever to be received by a US higher education institution. There is no clear plan or statement from the administration on how this gift is going to be used for elevating grad workers above poverty.

There are countless other examples of institutional discrimination that international workers face. For example the Turner awards, dedicated to underrepresented groups, have a US citizenship requirement and is only one of many awards requiring the same qualification. Whether or not the university can change this requirement on a local level, it remains a fact that such requirements are one more example of institutional discrimination that international grad workers face.

Instead of creating new awards directed at international grad workers, providing enough support for them to subsist while they are not able to get external jobs, and/or eliminating international student fee without any additional costs to the university, President McInnis and SBU admin continue to expand the discriminatory hardships that grad workers face. They use our “diversity” for their “inclusive” advertising and branding purposes, while they continue to exploit international workers and push us into dire material conditions.

While SBU admin does this, GSEU continues to fight for the rights of international students. Our International Student Worker Committee achieved international students to be able to work outside the US during the pandemic. We started our campaign against the international student fees in February 2022, and our petition received more than 300 supporters. However, President McInnis made no changes to her policy. Additionally, GSEU secured funding from the state for refunding the federal SEVIS fee for incoming international students, which amounts to $350. Compare this to President McInnis’ tenure, wherein grad workers now face an increase in an unnecessary fee which has not been eliminated with fees that also affect domestic students, and it again shows that where neoliberal institutions fail disadvantaged groups while using us for image-sake, it is in the labor union we can unite for dignified lives.

We call on our community to raise your voice to stop an end to this institutional discrimination, and for the immediate elimination of the international student fee! We also invite you to our upcoming actions in the upcoming semester on this matter. This will only be the beginning for an equitable workplace, and our fight will continue.