Content warning: mentions of suicide.
Governing Council’s first meeting of the academic year on October 24 was dominated by discussions of mental health, as student representatives were invited to speak on the topic. Representatives from the U of T Mental Health Policy Council, a newly-created advocacy group, were also in attendance at the meeting, though they were not given speaking rights.
The meeting also included the president’s address, the ombudsperson’s report, discussions on the planned Spadina-Sussex residence, and the Landmark Project.
The meeting began with President Meric Gertler’s address, which touched on the recent federal election and mental health. He noted that the university is working with the provincial government to outline the performance metrics that will be increasingly tied to U of T’s funding. On mental health, Gertler said, “We’ve heard from those who say that we have not done enough, and we welcome suggestions on how we can do better.” He pointed to the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, as well as the Expert Panel on Undergraduate Student Educational Experience as actions that the university has already taken.
“U of T is well known for its culture of excellence and we take tremendous pride in that,” wrote Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regher in her report on mental health. “You’ve just heard about our wonderful rankings, but our community has rightly reminded us [that] we also have to be mindful of the need to create a supportive community for one another.”
Student representatives from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) all addressed the council. They shared many of the same demands, asking for more academic forgiveness, better access to counseling, and the repeal of the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).
The UTSU’s Vice-President, Operations, Arjun Kaul, spoke on U of T’s competitive environment. “The culture of excellence that the university cultivates is what harms student mental health most,” said Kaul. He criticized the limited number of spots available for same-day counselling, and called for more funding to the Health & Wellness Centre, calling its wait times “abysmal.”
Joint speakers from the UTMSU and the UTGSU criticized the university’s fee structure, which places a financial burden on some students who take a reduced course load and recieve financial aid, and advocated for a course-by-course tuition structure.
A group of mental health protestors remained outside of Simcoe Hall for the duration of the meeting.
Report of the ombudsperson
The university’s ombudsperson, Ellen Hodnett, gave her report, speaking strongly in favour of the UMLAP.
“I was honoured to be asked to review the cases of the eight students to whom the policy was applied in its first year of implementation,” said Hodnett of the policy.
“I use the word honoured purposefully. In my 44 years here, I have never been prouder to be associated with the University of Toronto, seeing the extreme care, diligence, respectfulness, and compassion with which the policy was applied [in each case].”
She criticized the “misinformation” that she said is being “widely circulated… to use the suicides as a vehicle to link students’ reported fears of seeking mental health services with the mandated leave policy.”
After the meeting, the UTSU released a statement asking Hodnett to issue a formal apology. The statement calls her comments on the UMLAP “offensive and wrong,” and says that they “serve as a way of belittling students and further [emphasize] the ongoing issue of the administration not listening to its students throughout the entire policy-making process.” It criticized her attitude as being demeaning toward the student protestors, and pointed out that a draft of the policy was criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Hodnett also proposed recommendations from her role as ombudsperson. She suggested an ancillary fee system for students that are on a voluntary leave, which would allow them to access university services even though they are not enrolled in full or part-time studies.
Her last recommendation was on analyzing the nature of science labs as “fertile ground for harassment, bullying, and intimidation,” to which Regher responded that the university was undertaking a “Healthy Labs Initiative” which will provide resources for creating a positive lab environment.
UTSU President Joshua Bowman spoke in favour of the new residence that has been in the works since 2014, but ultimately urged Governing Council to consider “affordability and accessibility.”
“Many commuter students choose to commute out of financial necessity,” said Bowman to the council. “We can’t continue promoting the benefits of living in residence while failing to work toward financial options that are accessible to all students.” He highlighted the low amount of accessible rooms in residences across campus, even as the Spadina-Sussex residence is planned to have 44 accessible rooms — 23 dormitory rooms and 21 four-bedroom suites.
Members of the Governing Council expressed their desire for the university to plan for more than the known number of accessible spaces needed in order to create a welcoming environment for students with accessibility needs. The motion to approve the project in principle passed unanimously.
Two motions were passed on the Landmark Project, a proposal which aims to make major changes to the landscape of the front campus area at UTSG to create a “greener, more walkable and accessible campus.” The first motion passed confirmed U of T’s commitment to the Landmark Project in principle, including the proposed below-ground parking lot. The second motion approved in principle, was a project for a geothermal system under King’s College Circle, which will conserve heat in the summer for use during winter.