U of T has withdrawn the proposed policy that would allow the university to put students with mental health issues on a mandatory leave of absence. The decision comes after the Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) sent a letter to the university asking it to delay the policy’s approval.
Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh revealed the reason for the decision, announced by Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr on January 30, at Governing Council’s University Affairs Board (UAB) meeting this afternoon.
“The university continues to be confident that the proposed policy and its implementation is compliant with the Ontario Human Rights Code,” said Welsh.
The decision to delay the policy came on the day that the UAB was set to recommend the final draft of the policy to the Executive Committee for endorsement and forwarding to Governing Council, and days after the Academic Board did the same.
The OHRC is an arms-length agency of the provincial government whose mandate is to prevent discrimination and promote human rights in the province.
The policy was intended to allow the university to place students on a non-punitive leave of absence in situations where their mental health posed a danger to themselves or others or negatively affected their education. A policy currently exists that allows the university to put students with mental health issues on a mandatory leave of absence, but it is currently done by way of the Code of Student Conduct and is a technically punitive measure.
“Even though the university stands by this policy,” said Welsh during the meeting, “out of respect to the commissioner and to ensure that the best interest of our students continue to be addressed, the university will take additional time to consider her comments and to provide thorough and thoughtful response.”
According to Welsh, the communication from the OHRC came on January 29, a day before it was made public. The crux of the commissioner’s concern was, according to Welsh, “in the context of the duty to accommodate.”
“We were concerned because obviously the harm to a student of a mandatory leave is not just academic,” Mandhane told The Varsity. “It impacts things like their housing, their access to services, and we felt that those kinds of interests were sufficient and important enough that the university had to make clear that it understood that it had human rights obligations to students.”
Mandhane said that the OHRC was first made aware of the policy by the ARCH Disability Law Centre, a legal clinic that specializes in helping people with disabilities. After being alerted to the policy, the OHRC contacted the university about their concerns in December 2017.
Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh claimed that the updated draft is wholly compliant with the Ontario Human Rights Code. “We really do want to ensure that it fully incorporates the relevant legal factors in a way that can be easily seen and understood by all, including our students,” said Welsh.
The policy will be reworked and reintroduced to Governing Council at a later, unspecified time. According to Welsh, the university will take Mandhane’s concerns into consideration when undertaking its review of the policy.
Welsh highlighted the university’s other mental health initiatives, including increasing the number of embedded counselors in academic divisions. “The policy is one piece of our approach to mental health,” said Welsh. “But until we have this policy, we will be limited and we will still have to rely on the Code of Student Conduct, which is a disciplinary code.”
Student members of the UAB and Governing Council responded positively to the decision.
“I think it’s great that they stepped in, and that the policy has been withdrawn,” Julian Oliveira, a student member of the UAB, told The Varsity. “But I think it’s just a first step.”
Amanda Harvey-Sánchez, a student Governor, said that “this should be a wake-up call for the university that we need to take seriously the concern of students.”
The general response from stakeholder groups is that they are optimistic about the withdrawal of the policy, but they are concerned that it was due to the OHRC’s intervention. All are waiting to see what the university will do next.
Aidan Swirsky, a former University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Director who has been involved in organizing community consultations on the policy, said that he’s “glad the OHRC got involved, although I’m disappointed that didn’t happen earlier.” He also said that he wished the university had taken concerns like those of the OHRC into account earlier.
Prior to the meeting, former UAB member Nathan Chan released a statement to the board asking them to strike a special committee to examine the policy and start a public consultation process. When asked about the OHRC’s intervention, Chan described it as “an embarrassment.”
“The administration’s willingness to go down this path should not be taken lightly,” said Chan. “The policy is a liability that has the potential to damage the reputation and good standing of the university.”
Current UAB member Zhenglin Liu said that it is clear that “neither the specific recommendations of the Ombudsperson nor the concerns expressed both by Governing Council board members and members of the student body have been addressed.”
“I think that the administration is cognizant of that and it’s up to them to do something now that really makes sense for once,” said Liu.
Adrian Huntelar, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President University Affairs, said that the union will continue to be open to meeting with the administration to discuss concerns about the policy, which include the involvement of medical professionals and the right to legal counsel.
“Our line has always been the same: our support of the policy’s contingent on it taking a form that meets our concerns and meets the concerns of our members,” said Huntelar. “Until it does that, we will not support the policy.”
UTSU Vice-President Equity Chimwemwe Alao said that “the policy definitely doesn’t go far enough in accommodating students faced with mental health problems.”
“The students who the policy would be applied to may be state of crisis and providing them with the support and accommodation they need during this difficult time is paramount,” said Alao. “If the university is only meeting the absolute minimum requirement legally for ‘the duty to accommodate’ then it is clear the policy is not doing enough to support students.”
The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), a strong opponent of the policy, reacted positively to the news that the university is withdrawing the policy for now.
“It’s shameful that it required the involvement of the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner for the university to withdraw the policy in the face of concerns voiced by student leaders, faculty, staff and disability justice advocates alike,” said ASSU Executive Nooria Alam.
“We hope that the withdrawal of this policy is a step towards university administrators addressing our demands of prioritizing increasing funding to the chronically underfunded mental health and accessibility resources on campus,” said Alam. “And to address these issues through a student-oriented, disability justice framework.”