Over the past year, the University of Toronto’s proposed mandated leave of absence policy has been met with widespread student opposition. The proposed policy outlines a new process which would enable the university to remove students from their studies if, as a result of serious mental health issues, they pose a serious risk of harm to themselves or others, or are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education at the University.” It was originally proposed for approval in January, but was withdrawn at the request of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Now, an amended policy is back, and every representative student government has released a letter urging Governing Council and its committees to stop or delay its approval. Despite strong opposition from student politicians, the policy flew through its governance process with few opposing votes. In all likelihood, Governing Council will approve and implement the policy at its next meeting on June 27. And that is a step in the right direction.
To clarify a common misunderstanding, the ability for the university to remove students with serious and debilitating mental health issues from school is not new. It existed prior to this proposal, and will continue to exist even if the proposal is voted down.
Currently, the university uses the existing Code of Student Conduct — which is a disciplinary policy — to suspend students who, as a result of serious mental health issues, can no longer continue with their studies. The proposed policy doesn’t seek to give the university a new right to remove students from school; it seeks to redefine the scope and process of its existing ability to do so.
To get to the heart of the debate, we should ask ourselves whether students affected by mental illness are always and without exception able to make the decisions that are best for them — especially with regard to continuing their studies. This question is similar to one that medical professionals face regularly.
It is clear that so long as patients are competent and well-informed about their options, they should be able to make their own decisions regarding medical treatment, even if they make inadvisable decisions that have negative or fatal impacts on their own health.
However, as soon as a patient loses their ability to make decisions that are both competent and well-informed, there is an onus on the doctor to prescribe care even if it is against the wishes of the patient, while also working to return the patient to a state where they can make their own decisions. A patient should only be free to make bad decisions if they can reasonably be said to understand the consequences of those decisions.
The same principle applies to students. There are situations in which students suffering from severe mental health issues should be involuntarily removed from their studies. The threshold for this should be if one or both of two scenarios occur. The first is when a student, as a result of mental illness, presents a credible risk of harm to themselves or others. The second is when a student, as a result of mental illness, is not able to function academically.
Crucially, the second scenario entails academic non-performance, not merely academic underperformance. The overwhelming majority of students with mental health issues are at least somewhat able to function in school. They are functional enough to understand the consequences of their decisions, and so should be free to make bad ones, even if the result is academic failure. The second threshold, which aligns with the policy’s “Scenario 2,” applies only to the tiny handful of students who are no longer able to function academically at all.
The alternative to reasonable limits on autonomy is to insist that students always know what is best for them, no matter how ill they may be. Imagine a scenario in which a student with a severe mental health issue is failing all their courses, but is so ill that they genuinely do not believe themselves to be failing. The university can either temporarily remove this student from their studies or allow the student to fail out of school.
Respecting autonomy means respecting choices and the capacity to make choices. Can we really say that a student in that scenario chose to fail out? Did they understand what would follow from their decisions? The answer is clearly not. A blanket refusal to intervene does nothing to preserve student autonomy. Instead, it ensures the survival of the fittest.
The existing Code of Student Conduct was never designed to address concerns stemming from medical issues. The policy’s purpose is to set out a list of the rights and responsibilities of students and to protect community members who may have had those rights violated. Students found in violation of the Code of Student Conduct can receive sanctions under the code. These sanctions are all disciplinary, ranging from monetary fines to mandatory public service to suspension and expulsion.
Students facing discipline under the Code of Student Conduct are removed from the university community — with no access to university services — and end up with a disciplinary record. A suspension under the Code of Student Conduct can also endanger a student’s immigration status, as being put on a disciplinary leave can jeopardize a student visa. It can also mean losing access to funding from the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
Students in a severe mental health crisis shouldn’t receive disciplinary sanctions, but there are still situations under which they may have to be removed from their studies. Under the proposed policy, there is a process of support in place before and after a student is put on a leave. The process ensures that any sanctions are non-disciplinary, meaning they’ll have minimal harm to the student’s transcript and future academic prospects.
The university has three options for moving forward: it can allow for complete autonomy for individuals with mental health issues and never step forward to prevent harm; it can continue enforcing sanctions for ill students under the Code of Student Conduct; or it can approve and use the mandated leave of absence policy and have the tools it needs to help students. It is clear that approving the policy is the only viable option.
This isn’t to say the policy is perfect. The language of “Scenario 2” remains broader than necessary: the input of a medical professional should be mandatory, the appeals deadline should be longer, and the process for returning from a leave should be easier.
Still, the policy is a clear improvement over the status quo, and addresses many of the problems that exist under the Code of Student Conduct. An involuntary leave of absence will not come with a disciplinary record, and there will at least be the possibility of continued access to university services. These are welcome changes.
We have no reason to believe that the administration is keen to purge the university of students with mental health issues. We have no reason to believe that the new policy will be used on a scale larger than current practice.
Moreover, the University Affairs Board will review the policy as it is implemented. The policy will help students in ways that far outweigh the potential harms.
The longer we go without the proposed policy, the more students will face unfair sanctions under the existing policy. We cannot afford to give a dogmatic, poorly conceived interpretation of autonomy priority over the immediate well-being of students.
Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.
Daman Singh is a fifth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.