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UTM lecturer criticized online for tying grades to social media, buying his book

Reddit post sparks controversy, university asks instructor to change grading scheme

UTM lecturer criticized online for tying grades to social media, buying his book

Mitchell Huynh is a sessional lecturer at UTM who has come under fire for requiring his students to buy his own book, get his autograph, and follow his social media accounts for marks as part of his introduction to personal finance class.

Huynh has talked to multiple news outlets and stands by his grading practices, though he did tell the National Post that the university has emailed him to ask for his reconsideration of the grading scheme.

In a now-deleted Reddit post, user XdaZxz posted a breakdown of the course’s grading scheme, which included five per cent of the final mark set aside for buying Huynh’s book Dumb Money, writing out the student’s name in marker, getting the book signed by him, connecting with him on LinkedIn, and following him on Twitter and Instagram.

Despite the online backlash, Huynh stood by his grading scheme, sending the Toronto Star a copy of anonymous student feedback that he had received from previous classes, which mainly held positive views of the class. His RateMyProfessors.com score is evenly split between students who praise the lecturer’s course and students that echo online backlash.

“Basically using the course to promote his book. Course isn’t hard and it’s easy grades so if that’s what you’re after it’s a good pick,” wrote a user on Huynh’s RateMyProfessors.com page.

A LinkedIn user wrote about his teaching: “I get that the book costs what it does, but really? Participation is completely bullshit… Teaching is about mentorship and humility. Asking students to conform so you can hit a line item of value for yourself is wrong. Teach your course but don’t add extras that have a monetary value.”

To this Huynh replied that the cost of the textbook is “anywhere from $6 on a good day to $28 at it’s [sic] peak. That’s 1 to 5 Starbucks lattes.  Anything under $5 in price is a gimme, which is why the lowest the book has been is $6. The book needs to be valued to impart value to the students. This will increase the probability of the students hanging on to the book, so that it will be there when they need it.”

“Teaching and book sales together are less than five per cent of my annual income,” the instructor told the National Post, adding that he has put aside approximately $2,000 and will use the increased attention to his work to donate toward fighting the bushfires in Australia.

In a statement to The Varsity, a spokesperson for U of T declined to discuss the details of the specific case “because of personal privacy.” The spokesperson went on to write in an email: “The university does have policies regarding grading and fees for course materials.”

Huynh did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

U of T to redesign mental health services following task force’s report

Administration accepts all recommendations from student mental health task force

U of T to redesign mental health services following task force’s report

Content warning: article contains mentions of suicide.

Following a months-long consultation process with the U of T community, the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health submitted its final report on January 15. The report includes recommendations to redesign U of T’s mental health services, as well as a new partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Background

Following multiple apparent student suicides at UTSG and an incident where Campus Police handcuffed a student in a mental health crisis, student activists have been pushing the university to overhaul its mental health services. As early as March of last year, student groups such as How Many Lives and the Mental Health Policy Council were formed, and together with multiple student organizations, politicians, and faculty, called on the university to address what seemed to be a system ill-equipped to handle an overflow of students seeking health services.

While the university formed a mental health task force after a second apparent suicide in March at the Bahen Centre for Information and Technology, it was only after a third apparent suicide in September that the school placed physical barriers in the building. The mental health task force was the centrepiece of the university’s response to what had become a mental health crisis on campus.

The administration’s response

In the Draft Summary of Themes, which the task force released in November, there were concerns regarding the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr explained in an interview with The Varsity that the UMLAP is being kept as a policy, but that efforts will be made to educate the U of T community “so that students don’t see it as a barrier to seeking help.”

Regehr continued to say that the policy is used in rare cases involving safety concerns and “provides a way of us being able to address those concerns without having to use punitive measures.”

As far as the redesign of the current mental health services at U of T, Regehr emphasized that U of T already has “excellent” programs in place and that the redesign will be focused on “streamlining access” to services. This will be done with the assistance of CAMH, one of U of T’s several medical institution partners.

The redesign has no specific timeline — “we are addressing issues as fast as we are able to,” said Regehr. In the planning stages is the launch of a single website for mental health services across all three campuses, as well as an online booking system for counselling sessions.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President, Chemi Lhamo, expressed concerns in an earlier interview about how the task force would adjust to the nuances that UTSC has as a satellite campus. In response to this, Regehr said that while coordination of services will take place on one system across three campuses, there will be “local delivery” of services that can differ from one campus to another.

The task force’s final report also includes a section on financial resources, and states that mental health and wellness will be a priority for the university in the 2020–2021 budget. The university’s 2019–2020 budget had $17 million available for allocation.

The report also stresses that U of T will continue advocating for more support from the government toward mental health resources. “We continue to have good conversations with government, and we continue to be really hopeful that they will be investing resources into this critically important area,” said Regehr.

When asked if the professional development opportunities on student mental health that the report promises to provide faculty and staff would include Campus Police, considering the incident in 2019 where a student was handcuffed after seeking mental health services, Regehr responded: “Absolutely.”

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

CUPE 3902 units vote on agreements with university, prepare to negotiate

Union joins legal challenge against province for Bill 124

CUPE 3902 units vote on agreements with university, prepare to negotiate

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902, a subset of the larger CUPE representing academic employees at the University of Toronto, is working on ratifying agreements with the university and beginning negotiations for two of its units.

Tentative agreement negotiations in the past have inspired the union to take up a strike vote, which requires all members of the union to strike until their demands are met.

Unit 5, which represents some postdoctoral fellows employed by U of T, will vote to ratify its tentative agreement with the university. The agreement prioritizes greater work flexibility, longer paid leave for parents and survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and university help for U of T postdoctoral fellows that are relocating to Toronto.

The agreement also includes an annual salary increase of one per cent for minimum postdoctoral salaries, and a one per cent increase in salary for those who have multi-year contracts.

“We believe that [the agreement] reflects the best deal for postdocs that we could win at the bargaining table,” wrote Hamish Russell, Chair of CUPE 3902, in an email to The Varsity.

CUPE has joined other Ontario public sector employee unions in charter challenges against the province for the wage-cap on salary increases that passed under Bill 124 in November. “The Act is a forced pay cut for all public sector workers. CUPE is joining other unions in launching a legal challenge against the Act,” Russell added.

Unit 1, the largest unit and the one that represents other postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate students who are employed in teaching-related roles at U of T, will begin negotiations in February with the election of a bargaining committee.

The bargaining committee will consist of seven voting members and representatives from several committees in the union. After surveying the concerns and priorities of union members, they will create a union platform to bring to the university. Along with a group appointed to represent the university, the bargaining committee will draft proposals for an agreement with the university. The negotiations will likely continue into 2021.

In order to reach what it would consider to be a more reasonable contract, CUPE 3902 may decide to carry out a strike vote. Should the vote be called, members of the union would vote on whether or not to set a strike mandate, which would lead to legal strike action. All members of the union are required to participate in the strike for its duration.

In 2000, a four-week strike resulted in improved job security, dental care, improved training, and more. The most recent strike happened in 2015, when Unit 1 went on strike until the union entered binding arbitration with the university. Unit 1 was also set to strike in 2018, but reached an agreement with the university two weeks before the strike was set to start.

In the face of cuts to educational funding by the province, CUPE 3902 is working to minimize the impact that cuts have on U of T employees. Russell noted that CUPE 3902 supports the ongoing strikes by elementary and secondary teachers. “We call on the Ontario Government to end the strikes by reversing their cuts to education, their harmful increases to class sizes, and their interferences with free collective bargaining,” wrote Russell.

Mental health, a much debated issue at U of T, is of high priority in negotiations. The 2017–2018 platform stressed improvement to mental health coverage for all members.

“We continue to work with our unions and look forward to productive rounds of bargaining when negotiations begin later this year,” wrote a spokesperson for the university in an email to The Varsity.

Toronto’s 2020 women’s march draws smaller crowd, tries to stay true to big ideals

“Small but mighty” group marches in protest for women’s rights

Toronto’s 2020 women’s march draws smaller crowd, tries to stay true to big ideals

Toronto’s fourth annual women’s march drew a much smaller crowd to its informal event on January 18. During a snowstorm, approximately 10 protestors met in Nathan Phillips Square before marching up University Avenue for a rally.

Petra Kassun-Mutch, the publisher of feminist magazine LiisBeth and organizer of the march, said in an interview with The Varsity that she felt it was important to have the march, no matter how small. “We felt we should come anyway… Just because there’s just a few of us on a snowy day doesn’t mean that Toronto women are not aligned with all the things that everybody’s fighting for.”

The original women’s march took place in January 2017, with the first wave taking place the day after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. However, the Toronto women’s march separated from the organization that hosts the marches in Washington, DC and organizes marches in the United States, instead operating under the title of March on Canada. For the past three years, Toronto has held a more sizable women’s march, with the 2017 march drawing as many as 60,000 participants, and the 2019 march still gathering hundreds in poor weather conditions.

The group that previously hosted the Toronto women’s march, Women March On: Toronto, disbanded at the end of 2019, causing a lack of an official women’s march this year. Before that, they had separated from the new entity called Women’s March Canada, an organization closely aligned with the Washington, DC-based women’s march.

The divide between Women March On: Toronto and Women’s March Canada in 2018 “had to do with the feeling that the Women’s March 2020 organization globally… is too corporate,” said Kassun-Mutch. “They objected to them trying to find corporate sponsors.”

The official statement of Women March On: Toronto expressed that Women’s March Canada was unwilling to work with or give credit to local organizers, and citied its corporate structure as a reason for the schism.

The initial women’s marches were met with criticism that they were not inclusive enough. However, “It’s come so far since then,” said Kassun-Mutch. “It’s really evolved and strengthened.”

“This is the women’s march 2020 Toronto!” shouted Kassun-Mutch into a megaphone as the group walked up University Avenue. “Small but mighty!” another protestor echoed.

Another protestor, Champagne Thomson, said she was participating in the march “because as a woman you see that we are disproportionately impacted by all the atrocities in the world, from pay equity to environmental issues.” She expressed the need that women’s marches represent all women: “If it’s not for all of us, its for none of us.”

Kassun-Mutch expressed optimism that the march would come back in a bigger way in 2021, and create “a march that looks representative of Toronto’s population.”

“Hopefully next year, there’ll be twice as many of us!”

Department of Computer Science releases new admissions standards following criticisms

Plans to increase first-year placements by 10 per cent, decrease high school acceptances

Department of Computer Science releases new admissions standards following criticisms

U of T’s Department of Computer Science has announced changes to its program admissions for first-year students, following complaints that the previous admissions system was too competitive. The department plans to increase places in the program by 10 per cent and introduce two new required first-year courses: CSC110 — Foundations of Computer Science, and CSC111 — Foundations of Computer Science II. If students meet the set required marks for these classes, they will all be admitted into a computer science program.

These changes to the Computer Science Admission Category (CMP1) will constitute what the department calls “a new first-year experience” as it attempts to “improve student well-being.” The new CMP1 admission category will be available to students applying from high school for the 2020–2021 academic year. The department anticipates that these changes “will eliminate competition among CMP1 students.”

At a mental health town hall last spring, held following multiple student deaths at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — a computer science hub — the department announced that it planned to make changes to the program admissions. This announcement was made amidst complaints that the existing system was too competitive and was fostering an unhealthy environment. Before the changes, admissions to computer science programs were based solely on average marks for required courses. The median average of those accepted to computer science specialist and major programs rose from 78.5 per cent in 2014 to 89.2 per cent in 2018. In addition, the number of students applying for a computer science program rose from 537 to 981 applicants in the same four years. The program requirements will remain the same for students not admitted to the CMP1 category.

CMP1 students will be guaranteed admission to the computer science minor, major, or specialist programs, provided they meet the requirements. The department expects that the “vast majority” of CMP1 will be admitted to a computer science program. However, the department also plans to accept fewer students from high school into the computer science stream.

Currently, the capacity for computer science majors and specialists is 550 students per year.

“We expect the first-year experience to be less stressful for students in the first-year CS admission category,” wrote Professor Michelle Craig, the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Computer Science, to The Varsity. “We hope that this will develop into a strong first-year cohort and that this will lead to a stronger undergraduate computer science community.”

Shahin Imtiaz, a mental health activist and a computer science student, expressed that she was hesitant to accept the changes as good news.

“The field of computer science has been growing massively, [and] the responsibility lies on the university’s shoulders to foster an inclusive and nurturing environment for incoming students keeping this in mind,” she wrote to The Varsity. “There is certainly still a lot left to be done with regards to that.”

Editor’s Note (January 26, 12:14 pm): This article has been updated to attribute a quote to Michelle Craig.

The Breakdown: Grade deflation

U of T handbook gives guidelines on proportion of As in various courses

The Breakdown: Grade deflation

As the 2019 fall semester came to a close, students once again took to Twitter to express concern and confusion over U of T’s grading practices.

One tweet in particular featuring a screenshot of an email from an instructor went viral, with more than 500 retweets and students commenting their frustration and similar stories.

The email informed students that in order to counteract grade inflation and keep the course average between 75 to 78 per cent, grades for an assignment would be capped at eight, as opposed to 10.

Melissa Hill, Executive Director in the Faculty of Communications and Public Affairs at U of T, wrote to The Varsity that this email was a miscommunication, and the assignment would, in fact, be marked out of 10.

U of T’s grading distribution guidelines

The Faculty of Arts & Science Academic Handbook for Instructors outlines the rules and expectations with regard to grading undergraduate courses. Section 10.3 of the handbook gives “broad guidance” on marks distribution, based on a memo from the tri-campus dean in 2009.

The guidelines note that in large first- and second-year courses, “the proportion of As in any given offering of the course might reasonably vary from 15% to 35%” and courses that consistently fall on the upper or lower end of this range should undergo review.

As for upper-year courses, it states that due to small class sizes it is difficult to set detailed expectations of grade distributions. However, it notes that “distributions with 30-40% As (or even more) would not be unusual in 300- and 400-level courses.”

Calibration but not a bell curve

The handbook explicitly bans instructors from using a bell curve: “Grades… will not be determined by any system of quotas.” However, the use of grade calibration is permitted.

Grade calibration is the process whereby raw assessment scores are turned into the marks returned to students. The handbook describes calibration as a “responsible” practice as “it is totally unreasonable to expect an instructor to design test after test at precisely the same level of difficulty, and TAs vary in their experience and judgement.”

Calibration does not have to be performed using a linear manipulation, that is, adding or multiplying every grade by the same number, meaning grade calibration can appear very similar to a bell curve.

U of T’s Grading Practices Policy requires instructors to explain any grade calibration upon request of a student, and that the calibration be “defensible in light of the nature of the test or assignment.”

A history of confusion

This is not the first time that students have expressed concern over the clarity of grading practices.

A 2014 opinion article in The Varsity called for an end to grade deflation. The author called for an end to the practice and for U of T to make its data on average grades public. Months later, another opinion article argued for grade deflation, noting that competition is necessary.

This debate at U of T goes as far back as the 1970s, when in 1975, as part of a “war on marking inflation,” some students in POL208 — Introduction to International Relations and POL312 — Canadian Foreign Policy had their As shifted down to Bs.

Bell curving was officially prohibited in 1977 with the release of the Grading Practices Policy by Governing Council. The following year the central student union released pamphlets reminding students that bell curving was a banned practice as well as other mandatory marking rules professors were held to.

Ford government’s first Strategic Mandate Agreement hopes to tie funding to economic performance metrics

Funding requirements will drastically shift, negotiations ongoing

Ford government’s first Strategic Mandate Agreement hopes to tie funding to economic performance metrics

A year after the Ford government announced radical cuts to domestic tuition and financial assistance, the university and the province are sitting down for negotiations of the Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA), where the government hopes to place emphasis on students’ economic outcomes. The third of its kind, the SMA outlines domestic enrollment commitments and tuition fee structures from the university and funding commitments, based on enrollment and performance, from the province.

“As part of SMA3, we are shifting funding for universities and colleges to be more dependent on student, graduate, and economic outcomes,” wrote Ciara Byrne, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU), to The Varsity. “Students deserve an education that gives them the education and training necessary for rewarding careers that address labour market needs of today and in the future.”

The province, as part of its 2020–2021 budget, announced that it would be reducing the portion of provincial operating grants to Ontario universities and colleges based on enrolment, instead opting for performance-based funding to make up 60 per cent of postsecondary funding by 2024–2025.

U of T receives nearly a quarter of its budget from provincial operating grants, of which performance-based funding makes up 1.4 per cent, soon to be up to 25 per cent for SMA3. Included in the budget announcement was the cutting of performance indicators from 28 to 10 for universities, of which one can be selected by the university.

The university has found some relief in the increasing number of international students, whose tuition costs fall under the university’s discretion, as opposed to domestic tuition, which is set by the province.

SMA2, which expires on March 31, had slowly made progress toward performance-based funding, as U of T’s announcement of the SMA2 signing reads: “While the university will still receive per-student funding from the province for both undergraduate and graduate programs, some funding will be moving into a differentiation envelope that will be based on performance.”

SMA2 had also outlined domestic enrollment for the university to decrease over the three-year stretch of 2017–2020 in response to Ontario’s changing demographics — which resulted in the university being short $88 million in its budget when the Ford government cut domestic tuition in 2019 by 10 per cent.

“Students and their families make great sacrifices to attend university and college. They have been told that if they worked hard and invested in university or college, they would find a high-quality job,” wrote Byrne. “That is increasingly not the case.”

The university boasts high performance in the new proposed funding metrics of economic outcomes of students, with a 93.9 per cent employment rate and employability rankings of 12th and 13th in Quacquarelli Symonds and Times Higher Education rankings.

TCU Minister Ross Romano told the Toronto Star that, after replacing former Minister Merilee Fullerton, he visited presidents and heads of all 45 colleges and universities in Ontario. Romano assured the Star that the metrics will not disadvantage liberal arts programs: “I wouldn’t be here if not for the arts and humanities.”

“The data is the biggest one,” Romano told the Star about what worries him the most. “Because if we do not have clean data, how can we expect institutions to be bound by these terms?”

The Varsity has reached out to U of T for comment.

Editor’s Note (January 20, 4:10pm): An earlier version of this article stated that the province would be reducing its provincial operating grants. In fact, the province will be reducing the proportion of operating grants based on enrolment, to be made up instead by performance based funding. The Varsity regrets the error. 

U of T starts scholarship fund in honour of victims of PS752 plane crash

University to match all donations for needs-based scholarship

U of T starts scholarship fund in honour of victims of PS752 plane crash

U of T recently announced the launch of the Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund in honour of those who tragically lost their lives on the Ukraine International Airlines’ flight PS752 near Tehran, Iran earlier this month. U of T is currently accepting donations, which will be matched by the university at three dollars to every dollar donated for the first $250,000, and dollar-for-dollar beyond the $250,000 threshold.

The needs-based scholarship will be managed by U of T’s enrollment services and will be made available to both graduate and undergraduate students from Iran, or students of any background in Iranian studies at U of T.

Of the flight’s 176 passengers and crew, 138 people with ties to Canada were killed when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard mistook the plane for an enemy aircraft, according to Iranian officials. This incident happened amidst heightened tensions with the US, following the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani. Eight members of the U of T community — six of which were students — were among the victims of the crash.

The scholarship was created in collaboration with David Palmer, U of T’s Vice-President, Advancement; Rahim Rezaie, Associate Director of the International Virtual Engineering Student Teams initiative at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering; and Mehrdad Hariri, CEO and president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

“It really came out of desire to channel in a positive and forward looking way, so I thought that creating a memorial fund to support future students would be a fitting way to honour the legacy of those who perished,” Rezaie commented in an interview with The Varsity.

“I think it’s a tremendous testament to their commitment [and] their desire to contribute and to keep the legacy of our students and others…alive and augment [that] in a practical way.”

The scholarship is a welcome addition to a multi-campus commitment to remembering the lives lost. “It’s a very good opportunity for the Iranians and Canadians, and Canadian culture and Iranian culture to cooperate [and] get closer,” noted Vice-President of the UTSC Iranian Students’ Organization (ISO) Caspian Forouhar.

The ISO held a vigil for the community on January 9, where the names of the U of T students on the passenger manifest were read aloud and condolence banners were signed.

UTSG also saw a memorial service held at the Multi-Faith Centre by the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto the next evening, which was attended by President Meric Gertler and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

A memorial organized by Tigran, an independent Iranian cultural organization, followed both of these events and was attended by politicians from multiple levels of government, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Toronto Mayor John Tory.

Most recently, Gertler invited the U of T community to participate in a moment of silence with other Canadian universities on January 15. In a previous statement released shortly after the crash, Gertler commented on the situation: “I want to say how deeply saddened we are, and how concerned we are for the families and friends of those who lost their lives.”

He also encouraged students “to seek out the relevant services available on our campuses” through helplines and 24-hour on-campus counselling services.

“I must thank the University of Toronto for all it offered to us, and I can’t say anything but thank you. We really appreciate what they gave us,” said Forouhar. “[U of T] helped other Iranian student associations that are in other campuses to hold vigils even bigger and even larger in content, so the other associations could invite the families of the people that were lost in the crash, and so I can’t say anything but thank you.”