The University of Toronto’s Governing Council is delaying a vote on a policy that would allow the university to put students whose mental health issues posed a physical threat to themselves or others, or impacted their academics negatively, on a non-punitive yet mandatory leave of absence. Slated to be voted on this year, the vote will be shifted to the next cycle for the meeting of the Academic Board and University Affairs Board, on January 25 and January 30 of 2018, respectively.
The proposed policy is distinct from regular mandatory leaves. Students in this situation would currently be placed on leave in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct.
On November 16, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) announced that it had secured an agreement with Governing Council to postpone the vote on the new policy for two months to allow for more consultation and feedback from the community. The University Affairs Board and Academic Board were initially supposed to conduct their votes to recommend it to Governing Council the week of November 20.
“We proposed changes and made it clear that we wouldn’t support the policy until those changes had been made,” said Mathias Memmel, UTSU President. “The administration decided to postpone the vote rather than proceed without student support.”
Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations for U of T, said in an email to The Varsity that the university has been receiving feedback from students, staff, and faculty since the spring. “We want to get this right, and so in light of the excellent comments we’ve received recently the Vice-Provost, Students is reviewing the draft policy with this constructive feedback in mind,” she said.
Students have criticized the policy for, among other things, a lack of clarity on how it will impact students in precarious enrolment situations, like students receiving financial aid contingent on enrolment and international students with enrolment-dependent visas. In an earlier interview with The Varsity, Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh said that everything would happen on a case-by-case basis, and that the university would take into consideration the financial aid or immigration status of the student when making its decision.
University community speaks out against aspects of policy
Campus groups have since solicited feedback from students across the university. Former UTSU Vice-President External Lucinda Qu, University College Director Aidan Swirsky, and UTSU General Equity Director Adrian Huntelar organized a community consultation on November 14. In an email to The Varsity, they wrote that “it was problematic that admin had assumed that consultations with a limited number of large-scale student organizations were adequate substitutes for public consultations; this was especially noteworthy given how the consultations they hosted regarding the sexual violence policy last year were widely criticized but at least were held.”
Memmel said that the UTSU’s position on the policy hasn’t changed, and that the union views the policy as a positive development from the current punitive nature of a leave of absence. One issue that Memmel cited was the broad language of the policy. This is especially a concern in situations where students are unable to engage in academic pursuits, said Memmel. “Another concern is that a student could theoretically be placed on leave without the involvement of a medical professional. These are medical decisions, and they should only be made on the basis of medical evidence provided by a medical professional.”
The St. George Round Table (SGRT), an association of the student heads of colleges and undergraduate faculties, has also been seeking input from students via a Google form circulating on social media. Nish Chankar, Chair of the SGRT, said that the form “is an attempt to streamline and further legitimize the very important questions that students have surrounding the policy, and the feedback/suggestions many of them have so far been willing to share.”
In addition, a petition is circulating at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that stands in strong opposition to the policy. The petition expresses objection to “the targeting of students seen as having ‘serious mental health issues’” and to the “introduction of ‘mandatory leave.’”
Citing an article posted on an advocacy website for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the petition’s organizers contended that the policy is “shameful” and that “regardless of the benign sounding words that are used and regardless of intention… this policy will make studying harder for students.” They argued that the policy “wrongfully takes ‘agency and control’ away” from vulnerable students and “essentially removes students… for inconveniencing classmates and peers, and the university administration.”