The annual report on U of T’s controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) was delivered at the most recent University Affairs Board meeting, which highlighted the drop in use during the 2019–2020 academic year. Micah Stickel, acting Vice-Provost Students, emphasized that communication between his office and division heads was why the number of cases has dropped.
The UMLAP, which went into effect in 2018, allows the university to place a student on a mandatory leave without academic penalty if they are deemed to pose a serious threat to themselves or others, or if their mental health is negatively affecting their schoolwork.
The UMLAP has faced significant criticism from student groups and activists who argue that the policy lacks student input and will deter people from seeking help. Accordingly, Stickel also touched on raising awareness of the policy, and expressed the hope that this would reduce student concerns.
Updates on policy implementation
The policy was only invoked once during the 2019–2020 academic year, and the student placed on leave returned to their studies in September 2020. This is a significant decrease from the eight cases in 2018–2019, the first year of the policy’s operation.
Stickel explained that, while seven other potential cases had been brought forward by division heads, the Office of the Vice-Provost Students was able to communicate with them to decide that the policy was not appropriate for those cases. He said that in some cases where the policy was ultimately not applied, the university had not already exhausted its resources.
As of July 1, there were still five active UMLAP cases, two of which were voluntary and three that were university-mandated. One of the students placed on leave in the 2018–2019 academic year has since returned to the university and graduated.
During his report, Stickel noted that the policy is only considered when a student demonstrates concerning behaviour, and is not tied to the disclosure of a mental health issue.
Moreover, Stickel disclosed that while there were other cases for which the UMLAP was considered, they did not move ahead. He said that the university will only place a student on leave if all other options have been exhausted. Other factors, such as whether a student will be at greater risk if they return home, are also considered.
The university aims to tailor the approach of the policy to each case. In some cases, it also offers tuition refunds and allows the student to retain access to the Health & Wellness Centre and student benefits. Stickel underscored the compassionate intention of the policy as well, adding that he hopes that “over time, the information presented in [the] annual reports will demonstrate the efficacy of the policy and judicious and careful way in which it is applied.”
In an email to The Varsity, a university spokesperson wrote that many of the students under the UMLAP had returned to university or were in the process of doing so, and that families involved in the cases had “told [them] they appreciated that there was no academic penalty to their child.”
Ongoing controversy, communication efforts
Despite the university’s defence of the policy, many student groups remain opposed to the policy. In an email to The Varsity, U of T’s Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC) — an ad hoc student group involved in mental health advocacy — maintained that the policy remains problematic, and that it hopes to see a repeal or significant changes to it.
The MHPC has criticized the lack of student consultation and the administration’s failure to implement policies that would support students’ well-being in other ways. The group added that the drop in cases says little about how the policy is affecting the U of T community.
“We don’t know if many students have remained fearful of the Policy,” an MHPC spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity. The spokesperson also suggested that the drop could be attributed to “the number of students who have become fearful of their autonomy being taken away.”
In response to concerns that seeking help for mental health concerns would begin the mandated leave process, both Stickel and the U of T spokesperson noted that health records and disclosures of mental illness are protected by strict privacy rules.
However, Stickel did acknowledge that some students may not be aware of this and avoid reaching out as a result. “We will continue to work with our campus partners on an awareness campaign to reduce this concern,” he said. “We want students to seek the help that they need.”
While the MHPC spokesperson wrote that they appreciated an effort for greater transparency, they also argued that the policy is not as effective when students lack access to other supports available to enrolled students. “We have seen students’ essentials — their food, housing, financial supports as well as stressors, and more — be changed without due notice or consultation,” they wrote.
They also claimed that the policy has other issues than simply communication. They wrote that the issues with the policy itself “are equally and at times far more dangerous than those of ‘communication and transparency.’ ”