It’s time to talk about the new University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy. The policy, which originated as a response to the Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–15, gives U of T administrators unprecedented power to unilaterally place students with mental health issues on an involuntary leave of absence. This power can be invoked in virtually any situation where a student is struggling, academically or personally, and by Divisional Heads, registrars, and other administrative staff without the consent of the student and, in many cases, without their input.
This policy has drawn the ire of students, mental health awareness groups, and campus organizers, and these are only some of the many concerns expressed by students in the past few weeks.
The Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–15 highlighted the problematic use of the Code of Student Conduct, a punitive policy, to address scenarios in which students suffering from mental wellness issues were causing direct harm to themselves or others. The report recommended the creation of a separate policy to address these situations without officially suspending students under the code.
There is an inherent tension between the principles that inform this policy. The Ombudsperson’s report highlights that “the right to personal autonomy, self-determination and dignity is as significant for people with mental health disabilities as for others, and must be respected.” At the same time, the Ombudsperson affirms the right of the university under Bill 168 to “protect the safety of its staff and students by excluding a person from campus.” These are necessarily exclusionary practices: the university treads on the right to personal autonomy and self-determination each time they remove a student against their will.
Furthermore, the current writing of the policy extends far beyond the extreme cases in which Bill 168 already permits the university to intervene.
Under the policy, there are two ‘scenarios’ in which a university-mandated leave of absence can be applied. Scenario one deals with students who pose “a risk of harm to self or others, including but not limited to a risk of imminent or serious physical or psychological harm.” Scenario two deals with students who are “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education at the University notwithstanding accommodations or supportive resources that may be available,” even if they are not at any risk of direct harm.
This second scenario is absolutely unnecessary. If this policy is meant to deal only with the most extreme cases, as recommended by the Ombudsperson’s report, then the first scenario already accomplishes that. The addition of the second scenario is either a case of reckless policy overreach or a deliberate attempt to place conditions on the autonomy of students.
There is genuine cause for concern about the second scenario. The phrase “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education at the University” could theoretically extend to virtually any student dealing with depression, anxiety, low motivation, or a handful of other symptoms of mental illness. There is no clarifying language present in the policy, which gives full discretion to administrative staff in how to interpret it. The second scenario provides the university with a unilateral mechanism for removing struggling students from their academic and social activities.
This approach could also lead to students’ aversion to engaging with deans, registrars, or mental wellness liaisons within college and divisions. The policy does not set any guidelines for when administrative personnel should inform the Division Head about a potential case. This leaves the student in flux. If a student is cognizant of the fact that their registrar or supportive staff may, immediately after hearing their concerns, forward them to a Divisional Head for the purposes of considering a leave of absence, they will be less likely to trust administrative personnel or to come to them with concerns about mental wellness.
While many will argue that in practice, administrative staff will not act in such reckless ways, the point is that nothing in the policy prevents them from doing so. This problem is magnified by the fact that there is no requirement that medical professionals be consulted anywhere in the process.
Instead, these major decisions are left in the hands of university administrators, with no requirement that they have even a baseline understanding of mental health issues. The policy allows the Vice-Provost Students to unilaterally appoint a Student Case Manager (SCM) or Student Support Team (SST) to assist with the process. Although these people may include “student service representatives, registrarial personnel, medical professionals, academic administrators, campus safety personnel, campus police or others,” they do not have to be medical professionals or even trained in handling sensitive situations related to mental health.
The student also has no say in determining who will be their SCM or SST. This means that, under the current policy, a group of unfamiliar, potentially non-experts have a large say about whether a vulnerable student gets to continue their education. Further, the policy permits the Vice-Provost Students to delegate the duties of overseeing the cases of students going through the procedure to “their delegate” without specifying who is qualified to serve as the delegate or how they can be held accountable.
Fortunately, the policy is not yet set in stone. Discussion is scheduled to take place at the University Affairs Board on November 20 and then at the Governing Council on December 14. Students can register to speak at these meetings. The St. George Round Table and the University of Toronto Students’ Union are also accepting feedback online or via email, which will be submitted to the Office of the Vice-Provost Students.
Additionally, a grassroots movement has developed in the form of a Facebook group called the Mandatory Leave Policy Response Group, which is compiling a document where students can provide their own analysis line-by-line on the policy. That document will be shared with every member of the University Affairs Board and the Governing Council in advance of their debates on the issue. This group is also planning a series of broad public consultations where students can share their concerns with like-minded peers and organize collective responses.
Students can, and should, voice any concerns about the policy in these venues, as well as directly to registrars’ and deans’ offices. Only by consistently providing the students’ perspective on this policy, in as many forums as possible, can we make it work for students.
Adrian Huntelar is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies and Political Science. He is a member of the University of Toronto Students’ Union Board of Directors.