Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault.
Are my official academic records private? How would I be disciplined if I broke the Student Code? Where should I go if I face discrimination on campus?
There are many questions about student rights at the University of Toronto and so few answers. This state of affairs incentivized us to begin the Student Rights at U of T team, which began as part of a service learning class project. Together, we’ve done the deep dive for you on student rights and their enforcement at U of T.
It is unclear how faculty is trained on student rights since their training procedures are not public. In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that new faculty members are introduced to “the wide range of resources available to support students, and guidance regarding how best to connect students with these resources.”
They highlighted a comprehensive training workshop that “teaches participants to support a disclosure of sexual violence.” In addition, “training guidance and resources regarding accommodation, assessment, and anti-discrimination issues are provided through many other offices.”
In March 2021, we surveyed U of T students to learn more about their understanding of student rights and their experiences with the enforcement of those rights. The survey was largely based on ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, with some opportunities for longform responses. We sent this survey to campus groups that we believed had an interest in the topic, such as student governance, equity groups, and more. We also posted the survey in U of T forums like those for finding off-campus housing.
We then asked these respondents to pass on the survey to other students they associate with. While we recognize that this survey operates on a limited scale of respondents, the takeaways we saw from the results provide a small glimpse into how well some students understand their student rights at U of T.
Over the course of approximately one week, 138 students shared their experiences. Of these respondents, 64.5 per cent did not feel that they knew what their rights as a U of T student were while 81.8 per cent reported not knowing where to go to learn more about them. Most strikingly, 93.5 per cent of them answered that they did not know what to do if their rights were violated.
A rundown of student rights
Some of the rights protected by U of T are fairly straightforward and intuitive. The rights of U of T students are enshrined in the Governing Council’s policies, as well as legislation like the Ontario Human Rights Code.
You have the right to exercise free speech and association without disruption as an organization or an individual, which also means that your right to protest is limited to avenues that do not disrupt or impede access to others’ expression.
Many student rights, however, may be more surprising. For instance, your instructor does not have the right to modify assignments or their relative weight without the class’ consent after the syllabus has been handed out. If an instructor has ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you committed an academic offense, the onus is on you to convince people up the chain of command that you did not do it.
In terms of other academia-related rights, only you can access or release your academic records, save for reference letters, unless disclosure is required legally or for the university’s functioning. As long as it is authenticable, you can change your name or gender on your official academic record, which will then be used on your transcript and diploma.
In general at U of T, you also have the right to conditions of health and safety at the university, including for your property. Accordingly, you do not have the right to bear a firearm on campus, and while you are no longer allowed to smoke cannabis or tobacco on campus, you have the right to get assistance accessing cessation support from the university to help you stop smoking.
For U of T services, you have the right to access Campus Police Services’ annual reports and to access Housing Services to help find affordable and adequate off-campus accommodations.
A preliminary draft listing the full slate of student rights is available here. We are currently working with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to have a completed version of the charter of rights available on the union’s website.
But even with this extensive outline of rights, their application is an entirely different story. How can you ensure that they will be enforced? And how well have they been enforced in the past?
On paper versus in practice
On paper, U of T students have a wealth of academic, non-academic, and equity-related rights. In practice, it is a different story.
Under the Code, discrimination and harassment are prohibited in employment, housing, services, unions, and vocational associations and contracts. In addition, under the Governing Council policy, if you face discrimination or harassment, you have the right to report the incident to the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office and not face any sort of reprisal.
However, results of the survey on students’ understanding of their rights painted a startling picture of the realities of widespread marginalization at U of T. Of all racialized respondents, 30.9 per cent experienced at least one form of racism at U of T while 20 per cent of those who identified as LGBTQ+ reported discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or both.
Respondents also noted issues regarding their protection and treatment by U of T services and administration. For instance, Campus Police Services must treat you respectfully and with dignity, but of the few respondents who had experience with campus police, nearly 30 per cent reported being treated unfairly.
In terms of the sexual harassment or violence support system at U of T, you also have the right to not experience sexual harassment or violence and to seek justice from the university if it occurs. If you are accused of sexual harassment, sexual violence, an academic offense, or a Code of Student Conduct offense, you have various rights including that to representation and to appeal a decision. As a victim or an accused perpetrator of sexual violence, you have the right to get support from the university.
Yet, 12 out of the 15 respondents who experienced sexual violence or harassment did not feel that their right to support and justice from the university was respected.
Other equity-related and accommodation rights at U of T also lacked enforcement. For instance, you have the right to not be penalized for missing assessments due to religious observances as long as you communicate your obligations to your instructors. Survey results showed that some religious students reported that they were denied their right to make up missed coursework for religious observance reasons.
Another accommodation U of T must provide is related to disabilities. They must cover the cost of accommodating people with permanent and temporary disabilities in the most appropriate, dignified, and confidential way up until the university can prove it is causing undue hardship — a very hard standard to meet in Ontario. Undue hardship qualifies as when severe negative effects outweigh the benefit of providing accommodation, considering financial costs, outside funding, and health and safety risks.
The Code mandates that students with disabilities “have the same rights to equal opportunities under the Code, whether their disabilities are visible or not.” However, many students who identify as disabled or who are registered with accessibility services noted issues in accessing the services that the university offers.
A student wrote that student service office websites directed them to dead links or that phone calls were not returned, which discouraged them from seeking the accommodations they are entitled to.
Even after successfully navigating complicated services, students still faced issues having their accommodations respected. According to the survey results, 25 per cent of respondents who had requested an accommodation and submitted medical documentation reported that their request was refused, while 44 per cent experienced professors implying or stating outright that they would not approve accommodation requests regardless of medical documentation.
Of the respondents who had submitted accommodation requests, 37 per cent have been pressured by faculty members to disclose private medical information, which is in violation of the Code. In general, 51.7 per cent of respondents who identified as disabled reported that they faced discrimination at U of T.
Moreover, respondents to our survey made it clear that they feel the university is failing to adequately address the mental health crisis at U of T, as 58.1 per cent of respondents who submitted accommodation requests for mental health related disabilities report having had their request denied.
Questions and unclear policies
There are some areas where U of T students may struggle to fully understand policies about their rights. First, the policy on freedom of speech on campuses remains a confusing one to navigate. U of T’s 1992 Statement on Protection of Freedom of Speech reads: “Values of mutual respect and civility may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech,” immediately after listing, as reasons for limiting speech, the grounds of discrimination protected by the Code. ‘Values of mutual respect and civility,’ or the kind of occasion where this would be relevant, are not defined in this statement.
U of T’s 1994 Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment resists defining the particular circumstances that might count as harassment in some cases because “of the difficulty of anticipating the range of possible conflicts and determining in advance the proper balance.” This raises questions over what circumstances marginalized students are protected from and can seek redress for.
If a professor made a comment implying that men are naturally better at STEM, could a student who identifies as a woman report that as discrimination? What about if a peer asserted that they thought that racialized people are disproportionately incarcerated because of community socialization? It is uncertain if either of those circumstances constitutes ‘the creation of a poisoned environment’ — a tenet of identifying discrimination under the Code.
Secondly, another concern about the maintenance of student rights at U of T revolves around datedness of certain policies. The Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment — last updated on March 31, 1994 — lists protected classes that are no longer consistent with the updated Code, and many of the offices it lists no longer exist under the same name at the university.
Prior to this February, the Statement of Commitment Regarding Persons with Disabilities had not been updated since 2004, despite the major changes to Ontario’s human rights system that came into effect in June 2008. In fact, out of the 160 Governing Council policy documents published on the council’s website, only 48 have been updated in the past 10 years.
The “Sexual Harassment: Policy and Procedures” document — last updated in 1997 — is another fraught example of out-of-date policies. Although a U of T spokesperson confirmed that this policy is no longer operational, it remains on the Governing Council’s website for procedures related to sexual violence or harassment.
There is another policy, made effective in 2020, that offers starkly different processes for sexual harassment complaints. According to this policy, a non-criminal option before a formal investigation is only permissible if both parties agree, and they are not required to meet face to face.
Only this policy — not “Sexual Harassment: Policy and Procedures” — is listed on the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre website. However, these policies’ publicly unexplained, conflicting co-existence may make it unclear to students which will be used when dealing with sexual harassment.
Finally, there are also timeline issues with some processes. For most rights violations, you are supposed to contact the relevant administrative officer, registrar, professor, or as a last resort, the Office of the Ombudsperson. However, U of T does not offer front-facing timeline expectations for students when making complaints through these internal procedures, muddling the process further and potentially undercutting procedural accountability.
How can we do better?
Evidently, the state of student rights policy at U of T creates a system that would be difficult to navigate for most students even if they actively sought it out, which sometimes leads to gaps in meaningfully enforcing it. But it’s important to note that it doesn’t have to be this way.
McGill University, for instance, has had an official Charter of Student Rights since 1984, which exists in tandem with its own Code of Student Conduct. McGill’s charter is unique because it outlines what rights its students have, whereas U of T’s code of conduct is written entirely in restrictions on student behaviour.
Trent University and McMaster University are hybrids, falling somewhere between U of T and McGill’s examples, as they have charters that show both restrictions in student rights, like U of T, and that highlight rights students are entitled to, like McGill.
Unlike the UTSU, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has a commissioner of student rights research and advocacy, a position created last year by SSMU’s vice-president university affairs. Currently, Adrienne Tessier, a third-year student at McGill’s Faculty of Law, is filling this position.
“At a micro level, I respond to student inquiries and can answer their questions about university policies. I can act as a referral service to other offices within the community as well,” Tessier explained in an email to The Varsity. “At a macro level, I am able to design surveys about student rights and complete reports to inform student advocacy.”
One of her most recent projects involved surveying students about McGill’s University Student Assessment Policy, a document intended to protect students from excessive workloads and to ensure non-discriminatory treatment that McGill is currently revising. Tessier also runs the Know Your Rights campaign for students twice a year.
“I hope that I am able to provide students with some sense of support and order in an often confusing, overwhelming academic institution,” she wrote.
The sentiments that she expressed ring true for U of T’s situation as well, and they provide a useful model for what our student community and university should strive for. After all, when it comes to student rights at U of T — which can sometimes go unenforced — increased support and transparency are exactly what we need.
Editor’s note (April 6): This article has been updated to correct the name of the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.