SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

In a near-unanimous vote, Governing Council — U of T’s highest decision-making body — passed the contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy amid protests from students. It will be implemented effective immediately.

The motion passed with only three people voting against, out of more than 40 governors who were eligible to vote. Immediately after its passing, student protestors who had gathered outside began shouting their dissent.

The policy allows the university to place students on a nonpunitive, but mandatory, leave of absence from U of T if their mental health either poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.

For the latter, the policy states that “this scenario is not intended to apply to situations where a Student is academically unsuccessful,” but to instances when a student is unable “to fulfill the essential activities required to pursue their program.”

Professor Cheryl Regehr, U of T Vice-President and Provost, defended the updated policy and the consultation process, saying that she has spoken with “students who have wished there had been a policy like this in place for themselves, their friends, or their families.”

During the meeting there was also a motion to postpone discussion on the policy, to which Chair of Governing Council Claire Kennedy said that the university would drop the policy if the motion passed.

Regehr defended this decision, citing key philosophical divides and fundamental differences that “cannot be addressed through further revisions or consultations.” The motion failed with only four governors voting in favour.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a student governor on Governing Council and one of the three ‘no’’ votes, told The Varsity that “this ultimatum of ‘my way or the highway’ is disappointing and not conducive to productive dialogue between students and the administration.”

“I am especially troubled by the view propagated repeatedly by some members of the administration that the disagreements between students and the administration are irreconcilable and that further consultation would be pointless,” stated Harvey-Sanchez.

Before and during the meeting, around 50 students gathered outside Governing Council’s offices at Simcoe Hall to protest the policy, carrying signs that included criticisms of the limited consultation the university undertook.

Chants, such as “Whose campus? Our campus!” or “Hey hey, ho ho, MLAP has got to go!” were audible from within the Governing Council chamber throughout the meeting.

The demonstration drew students from all three U of T campuses, as well as others from Ryerson University and York University. Nour Alideeb, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–Ontario), was also in attendance.

Five representatives of student governments at U of T were given three minutes each to address the council: Ayaan Abdulle, Vice-President Academics and University Affairs of the SCSU; Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); Jamie Kearns, Vice-President External of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students; Andres Posada, Vice-President University Affairs of the U of T Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU); and Lynne Alexandrova, Internal Commissioner at the U of T Graduate Students’ Union.

All speakers from the five student unions shared their concerns and disapproval with the policy. Grondin alleged that the administration exhibited “tendencies to dismiss the voices of students” and portrayed protestors as “uneducated on the issues.”

Abdulle emphasized the SCSU’s concerns about cultural ignorance regarding the policy, saying that “Black and Indigenous students should be at the table.”  

U of T Ombudsperson and Professor Ellen Hodnett also spoke during the meeting: “In my view the proposed policy is long overdue.” The policy originated from her 2013–2014 report, recommending increased mental health services for students.

After the vote, Anne Boucher, President of the UTSU, said that although the UTSU had been opposed to the policy, they will “work with the university” to address student concerns.

“It is disappointing to see that consultations weren’t fully considered,” said Boucher. She considers the policy as “an improvement from what we have with the [Code of Student Conduct.]”

Prior to this policy’s passing, the U of T Code of Student Conduct already put students on a punitive leave from school if they broke the code. The mandated leave of absence policy will put students on a nonpunitive leave.

“It’s very frustrating, extremely upsetting, and I’m really, really angry right now,” said Felipe Nagata, President of the UTMSU. He added that he hopes to “fight for an updated policy that can actually protect students instead of a policy that just has vagueness and harms our autonomy.”

Speaking to The Varsity, Alideeb took issue with the consultation process, criticizing its lack of engagement with the student body and neglect of students’ schedules. She also added that CFS–Ontario would continue “supporting student groups on campus to continue this work on the ground.”

In a written statement to The Varsity, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, said that the university was aware that there are people who are “deeply opposed” to the policy and others, such as the ombudsperson, who are “strongly supportive of this approach, motivated by their overriding concern for the wellbeing of our students.”

“We will to continue to meet with students to talk about the policy, work together on this issue and make sure we can do everything we can to support students who are going through a serious health or mental health issue,” added Welsh.

According to the 2018–2019 operating budget, accessibility advisors “will provide services on location within academic divisions on the St. George campus.” The $1.5 million allocations make up approximately 0.06 per cent of the university’s $2.68 billion budget.

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