Opinion: Late announcements, callous comments — U of T has yet to centre students in a meaningful way

Both research and student experiences show a disappointing history of reactive action on the part of the administration

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

U of T students are well aware of the horror stories told of the university that scare away potential applicants: professors are unnecessarily hard, students fail half of their classes, and — my personal favourite — the university is full of anti-social, academic-obsessed losers. Nonetheless, the University of Toronto is still the most prestigious school in Canada.

That being said, it maintains its status as an academically competitive school by neglecting the well-being of its students.

Failure to support students

In September, the Bahen Centre for Information Technology witnessed its third apparent suicide in the span of less than two years. Many students believe that this speaks to a lack of support for mental health services at U of T.

Students have criticized U of T’s mental health services and policies, but Dr. Ellen Hodnett, the university’s ombudsperson, accused students of using misinformation to resist the university-mandated leave of absence policy — a policy which “allows the university to place students on a leave of absence if they exhibit severe mental health problems that the university feels pose a potential risk of serious harm to themselves or others.” This occurred during a Governing Council meeting on October 24 — a stance that the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) found “belittling.”

Hodnett’s comments are similar to a pattern we’ve seen among university representatives, who time and again showed that they will not prioritize student concerns above university administration. Unfortunately, Hodnett’s response is just one example of an instance where students feel ignored and belittled. Instances like these discourage students and student representatives from engaging with university policies and, consequently, lead to a resentful student populace.

The subversion of students’ voices extends outside of policy-making; it even includes their basic safety and day-to-day campus life. Last year, the U of T dismissed students’ concerns that inclement weather was dangerous, and Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr suggested that students could simply stay overnight in Robarts Library during harsh weather conditions.

Regehr’s comments gave students two choices: let your grades suffer or suffer hazardous conditions. Recent updates to the cancellation of classes policy acknowledge the error of the university’s untimely cancellations, but this is a change that is well overdue, as U of T is yet again reactively mediating a long-established issue. 

These examples do not include the long history of complaints over inaccessible loan and bursary systems, critiques concerning U of T’s lack of campus culture, concerns about student safety, and frustration over U of T’s mental health services. 

Importance of the student voice

Several academic sources agree that the student body’s voice and culture are both important to universities. Barbara Sporn, a professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, noted that “universities are complex social organizations with distinctive cultures,” and Joseph Simplicio, who authored several books concerning university education, argues that “a university’s culture, tradition, and values are not only important, they are vital to the wellbeing of the institution because they provide stability and continuity.”

However, a lack of culture and understanding of students’ needs can make it difficult for administration to properly manage higher education institutions. “Changing environmental conditions exert strong influence on… universities,” explained Sporn. Simplicio further added that “the delicate balance of all [university] interactions can be quickly upset.” Scholars agree that university culture and its impact on students is important, yet it feels like U of T has done little to treat these factors with the weight they deserve.

According to a study published in the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy, an unhappy, stressed student body harbours poor performance in studying and learning. It also leads to “low social readjustment,” poor personal hygiene, psychological anxiety, indecision, and depression among students.

According to a 2004 poll from The Princeton Review, U of T has “the least happy students” in North America. In response, U of T’s vice-provost accused The Princeton Review of “trying to sell books” under skewed research methods.

I do not meant to belittle U of T as an institution — quite the contrary. I love this university, the high quality of education it provides, the clubs I get to be a part of, and my work within the community. It is because I love our students and this institution that I care about the strength of our community. I proudly wear U of T merchandise, and I brandish the university’s name on my social media pages.

Although U of T has its fair share of problems, I see that administration is slowly changing to amend some concerns. I know that U of T can do better, and it must.

The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one, and one of the U of T’s biggest problems is its band-aid solutions. The administration has the capacity to make strides in its policies to better accommodate student concerns it just has to be more proactive.

Morgan McKay is a second-year Criminology student at Woodsworth College.

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