Content warning: This article discusses self-harm.
U of T hosted a town hall on September 23 to consult with community members on the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP). During the town hall, students came forward to ask questions and voice concerns about the controversial policy. The session was the third consultation session hosted this year as part of a larger consultation process, which was extended in May to the fall semester in the wake of student unions’ requests.
The town hall was led by Professor Donald Ainslie, former principal of University College and chair of the Department of Philosophy, and Varsha Patel, assistant dean of student success and career support at UTSC.
Background on UMLAP
A revised UMLAP policy was approved by the Governing Council in 2018, following its initial draft in 2015. It is triggered if the university concludes that, due to mental health reasons, a student’s behaviour poses imminent harm to themselves or to others or if they are unable to engage in essential activities required to pursue education despite the accommodations that have been offered to them. The UMLAP allows U of T to put the student on leave without academic penalty until they demonstrate that they are fit to return.
Many groups, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), have criticized the UMLAP since its inception. Some have said the policy stigmatizes mental health issues.
Policy rationale questioned
During the town hall, Ainslie said the UMLAP was created with the intention to provide a “non-punitive” option to deal with students showing threatening or disruptive behaviours. He explained that before the UMLAP’s passage, such behaviours were considered disciplinary matters under the jurisdiction of the Code of Student Conduct.
“What was happening before the passage of this policy is that students were being [charged] through the Code of Student Conduct in cases where [their] behaviour was the result of [a] serious mental health crisis,” said Ainslie. “And I think everyone more or less recognized that discipline was not really the right approach here.”
However, this explanation was questioned by participants during the consultation. One participant argued that binding self-harming behaviours together with behaviour that harms others into one policy is questionable, as they are different in nature. They said students who may harm themselves need accommodations outside of disciplinary measures, and treating their behaviour as equivalent to behaviour that harms others creates barriers for students who might want to seek help.
“So if we’re looking at students who are going to harm others, I think that’s completely separate from a student who is going to harm themselves,” they said. “And I think that’s where a lot of these barriers for students to reach out and seek help [are] coming from… they feel that if they do reach out to talk to somebody that they will be mandated out.”
“Why did you lump everything together?” the participant asked. “And why didn’t you feel it was appropriate to separate them and put one into the Student Code of Conduct and find something that’s more accommodating for students who are going to harm themselves?”
Ainslie acknowledged the participant’s concern about intertwining the cases of students who are harming themselves and students who are threatening others. He said that this concern has been raised multiple times in previous consultations and the university is looking into options to disentangle the situation.
“We want the student who’s having self-harming thoughts to get help. If this policy is standing in the way, [then] that’s a serious concern, and we’ve heard that repeatedly in our consultations, and it’s something that we’re hoping to address in our review,” said Ainslie.
Concern about mandate
One participant questioned the ‘mandate’ part of the UMLAP during the meeting. They said that various student groups have expressed concerns that the leave should not be mandatory but rather designed in a way that affected students choose to take a leave voluntarily. They claimed such points have been made during multiple consultation sessions over time, and although U of T has provided justification each time, students are not yet convinced that the UMLAP should be mandatory.
“It is very unclear why the university admin would want to do something which clearly the students have unanimously opposed for the longest time,” they said. “So [I was] wondering why, through multiple consultations and the same point coming in repeatedly, the admin fails to take notice of this.”
Ainslie responded that U of T has recognized students’ concern about the mandatory nature of the UMLAP and said the administration had included this as part of their consideration. However, he denied the description that the opposition against the UMLAP is “unanimous,” claiming that he had personally heard students saying mandatory leave is appropriate if a student is threatening others.
“I’m just not going to accept your characterization of the feedback we’ve heard because I don’t think it’s unanimous as you suggest, although there’s been lots of criticism, and we’ve been hearing it and listening to it,” said Ainslie.
The participant who originally raised the concern asked for proof that their objection is not unanimous, claiming they have been to multiple public consultation sessions and were not aware there were students who supported the mandatory policy.
In response, Ainslie said the consultations with support groups were not done publicly and that he was not comfortable releasing meeting documents, as the support groups were not informed that such information might go public when the meeting took place.
Ainslie continued to defend the mandate, saying the university has a responsibility to protect the safety of its community members. “I’m hearing that in cases where students are threatening harm to others, the university should act to protect the university community. And indeed, the university has a legal commitment to its employees [and] to keep them in a safe workplace environment,” he said.
Ainslie also commented on concerns brought forward by the OHRC in an open letter to U of T in 2018. He said the policy has been “extensively rewritten” after receiving criticism from the commission, and that the revised version that was eventually passed has taken the concerns into account.
“Yes, there was a period where the Ontario Human Rights Commission had concerns about the policy,” said Ainslie, “but those concerns were addressed in the revised policy that was eventually passed in 2018.”
Names of town hall attendees have been omitted to protect students’ privacy.
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
- Connex 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 end one’s life
- 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 reckless
- 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.