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Op-ed: Mandated leave policy not disciplinary in name, yet disciplinary in consequence

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Op-ed: Mandated leave policy not disciplinary in name, yet disciplinary in consequence

A critical response to supporters of the recently passed mandated leave of absence policy

Last month, the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) was approved by Governing Council. The near-unanimous vote demonstrates that Governing Council appears to have minimal-to-no qualms about what the UMLAP entails. I, however, still have many.

The recent pro-UMLAP op-ed published in The Varsity argues that the UMLAP is better than the status quo. However, it is important to interrogate how and for whom. In response to much abstract discussion of the policy thus far, I want to break down exactly what the now-approved policy can mean for students moving forward.

Code of Conduct versus UMLAP: a false dilemma

An essential argument made in favour of the UMLAP is that it is better than the prior method of dealing with students with serious mental health issues. Before the UMLAP took effect on June 27, 2018, the university would apply the existing Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters and Code of Student Conduct.

The Code of Student Conduct and its associated sanctions were applied to students who would pose a risk to themselves or others in the community due to mental health reasons. These sanctions included formal written reprimand, denial of access to university services, suspension, and expulsion. The latter two entailed notations on the academic transcripts of the student.

Yet in practice for instances in which mental health factors were suspected, the university would allow for alternative accommodations to the use of disciplinary Code of Student Conduct proceedings. And if the accommodations were unsuccessful including the possibility of the student not consenting to adhere to them the university could exclude a person from campus as per Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). All of this was happening before the UMLAP was even drafted.

With such course of action, you can imagine the university’s governance dilemma: they have the Code of Student Conduct providing alternatives in cases of students with serious mental health issues because they realize the injustice of penalizing such students through sanctions. And one of the alternatives is to exclude them from campus to protect the rest of the university community in accordance with their obligations to OHSA.  

However, this type of exclusion is not defined in any university policy, and hence has the potential to still be defined as “disciplinary” under the disciplinary Code of Student Conduct proceeding, and occur in the form of suspension or expulsion. The rationale for UMLAP arose from the need for the university administrative system to have a specific process in place for dealing with students with serious mental health issues who came into contact with the Code of Student Conduct.

The pro-UMLAP op-ed applauds the university for taking a non-disciplinary approach to matters that were being handled under the disciplinary codes beforehand. I take issue with the argument that the non-disciplinary UMLAP is better than the prior disciplinary code. The UMLAP essentially legitimizes the university’s informal action of removing students from campus under the alternative process to the Code of Student Conduct.

First of all, the passing of the UMLAP does not preclude the university’s ability to apply the other Governing Council policies, including the Code of Student Conduct it says so right in the UMLAP itself. In fact, both policies could be applied against the student if the administration desired. We as students have no reason to believe the university would not do this.

The point of greater concern, however, is the additional powers the UMLAP gives to administrative bodies. In regard to the use of the Code of Student Conduct, the Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–2015 noted her issue with the internal procedure, stating that she was “particularly interested in how things are done when students exercise their option of rejecting a course of action or conditions on their attendance proposed by an administrator.” This report is cited as inspiration for the UMLAP.

The report reveals that a possible alternative accommodation being offered to students may have been a voluntary leave of absence. Furthermore, in an instance where a student was rejecting this voluntary leave, the university would attempt to or be successful in excluding them off the campus by invoking provincial statutory law. This underscores the university’s specific concern with the exercise of consent by the student under question.

The UMLAP gives the university the ability to force a student to take a leave of absence, which was previously only being utilized given the limbo between the university’s Code of Student Conduct and the OHSA. This is not improvement. Rather, it expands the university’s administrative power at the expense of eroding students’ dignity and autonomy.

The scope of the UMLAP does not only catch those students against whom the Code of Student Conduct was being used — which is now under Scenario 1 of the UMLAP  but now also those students who are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education.”

The pro-UMLAP op-ed mentions that the UMLAP sought to “redefine the scope” of the university’s power to remove students from the campus. While this is true, its scope isn’t reduced, but rather broadened, such that the university could apply the UMLAP to more students than it could have with the prior codes. Contrary to the op-ed’s argument, the university then effectively does have a new, explicitly stated, right to remove students, and this is an immense cause for concern.

Do not assume that my argument against the UMLAP is an endorsement for the Code of Student Conduct process. The code is the wrong policy to invoke; however, that does not mean we must tacitly endorse any new policy that replicates the same actions taken under the code, as most of Governing Council recently did. In presenting the UMLAP in its current form as the only salvation the university had from the Code of Student Conduct process on June 27, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr did the university governors a great injustice in order to secure greater control for the administration.  

A zero-sum equation: the university gains control by taking it away from students

Students’ consent in the UMLAP is honoured insofar as a given student agrees to accommodations. However, this is not meaningful consent. If the exercise of your consent can result in the removal of it, then you don’t really have a choice.

If you have any experience in dealing with students in a disciplinary proceeding, then you know mental health is a recurring factor. Last year, I sat on the Arts & Science Council’s Academic Appeals Board, through which I heard many student appeals.

I came across students who were under academic suspension from the Faculty of Arts & Science, who would bring up mental health in their appeals. Yet most often, the core issue was not that mental health was a factor in their inability to continue school, but rather that the lack of support from the university’s bureaucratic system had ensued in a snowballing loss of control, which then contributed to students’ inability to succeed as per the university’s requirements.

At its foundation, the university is an inaccessible system, especially for students with disabilities and accessibility needs. The students I saw on the Academic Appeals Board would have passed the threshold for invoking the UMLAP, which encompasses demonstrating “behaviour where the normal application of academic sanctions (including the possibility of failure in a course, petitions and appeals, etc.) is appropriate and sufficient.”

Many of these students had to seek resources outside of the university before and after the sanctions were applied, and now they had the onus of proving to the Academic Appeals Board why they deserved to have their sanctions, which were unjustly placed because of the university’s disregard of mental health factors, lifted.

The students placed on forced leave under the UMLAP will have to go through the same process. However, under the previous disciplinary process, mental health was not being considered and hence the sanctions were an injustice. This allowed for mental health reasons to be brought up as evidence for appeal. Now, under the non-disciplinary policy, mental health is explicitly considered, such that mental health reasons are weaponized to exclude students from campus in the first place.

Imagine what the appeals framework could now look like with this policy in effect. Prior to the UMLAP, any proceedings under the Code of Student Conduct for students with serious mental health-related issues could be appealed under the Disciplinary Appeals Board at Governing Council.

The decision of the Vice-Provost Students under the UMLAP can still be appealed under the Disciplinary Appeals Board. However, when before the university would have had to rely on reading into the OHSA to exclude students from campus, now they have explicit written power to force students from campus and justify their actions. It makes student appeals against forced exclusion from campus more difficult to win, while their material conditions for the appeals may remain the same.

The UMLAP not only disregards students’ consent and autonomy, but provides the university with more control over the student already grieving a loss of control due to inadequate support in the first place. The loss of control is a core issue for students who face numerous simultaneous and intersecting challenges every day, not limited to financial ability, housing situations, immigration status, and mental health.

Disregarding their consent and imposing a leave of absence will not resolve any issue for the student, but perpetuate it further. This only resolves the issue for the university, which can now invoke the UMLAP as a short-term solution for students instead of investing in long-term improvements of the inadequate mental health support infrastructure currently in place on campus.

With these consequences in mind, students might be less likely to approach university administrators or services in seek of support, given that the UMLAP has the scope to encompass a greater proportion of students with mental health related issues and expose them to the possibility of mandated leave amidst inadequate health and wellness supports.

The list of concerns has no end

Opponents of the policy, including many student representatives, have brought up countless issues with the UMLAP, including demands for further thorough student consultations. Concerns include the UMLAP’s general disregard for addressing the campus mental health crisis at its core, the university’s reluctance to redirect efforts to improving accessibility and support services, and the question of who will determine if mental health reasons are present, and if they have any expertise in making such determinations.

Opponents of the UMLAP have also rightly been critical of the university’s role in being a factor to triggering mental health issues that the UMLAP does not even dare to address.

These concerns were brought in the lead up to and at the Governing Council meeting on June 27. The proponents of the UMLAP chose to cite the pro-UMLAP op-ed as proof of student support during the meeting instead. This selective use student evidence by administration if nothing else is a case in point of the university administration’s lack of meaningful student consultation.

In addition to my concerns with the UMLAP’s overbreadth, disrespect of student autonomy, and general student opposition, there are still many material questions to be answered: the impact of the UMLAP on students’ transcripts and graduate school prospects; the relationship between differential access to mental health support resources due to varying college  memberships and the probability of the invocation of the UMLAP; and the complexity of tuition and fee reimbursements, especially for international students, when the UMLAP is applied. These problems existed under the use of the Code of Student Conduct and the UMLAP provides us no guarantee that they will not continue to exist.

The UMLAP begets more questions than it answers, and the lack of guidelines only multiply the undue stress on students dealing with an already-inaccessible system. Let us remember that mental health in the policy is very context-dependent. The policy is invoked if a Division Head comes to know about a student who meets the threshold. Given that there is a great lack in adequate accommodations within the university structure, the likelihood of students coming into contact with the UMLAP is high.  

Despite all of these concerns, we are left with the fact that the UMLAP is indeed in effect. Our next step as students and members of the U of T community is to keep a watchful eye on the administration and ensure that they do not abuse the UMLAP in the many ways that they now have sanctioned power to do.

Priyanka Sharma is an incoming master’s student at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies. She was the 20172018 President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.