On November 8, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) sent a letter to U of T, criticizing the ongoing review of the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) and laying out concerns the commission has with the policy. This is not the first time the OHRC has taken a stand on the UMLAP. In 2018, it sent a letter that laid out a number of concerns it had with the policy, which it is now claiming have not been fully addressed.

At this week’s University Affairs Board meeting, members of U of T administration responded to the letter, claiming that the policy does in fact follow the Ontario Human Rights Code. 

The UMLAP is a policy that allows the university to put a student on a leave of absence without academic penalty should it conclude that the student in question poses a threat of harm to themselves or others. The policy has been controversial since it was first instituted in 2018 and is currently under review. Although the review is ongoing, the preliminary recommendations for the policy are making their way to the Governing Council. 

The OHRC’s concerns 

In a letter addressed to Brian D. Lawson, the chair of U of T’s Governing Council, and Trevor Young, U of T’s acting vice-president and provost, OHRC Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire explained a number of problems the OHRC has with the UMLAP review, which she wrote lacked “several key components” of a fair review. 

DeGuire wrote that one big issue with the policy is that it does not explicitly require “objective evidence of risk” or advice from medical professionals when administrators decide whether a student should be put on leave. The OHRC is also concerned that the policy allows the university to take away important services from students who are deemed a risk. 

The letter laid out a few recommendations for the review. It also said the university should commission an external review of the policy conducted by an expert in mental health and human rights, and laid out a number of specific aspects of the policy the review should consider. U of T’s review is led by two U of T professors, though U of T said it hired an external expert to assist them.

The letter also emphasized that the review should use an intersectional lens and investigate how the policy affects students in different groups, such as racialized students or students with mental health disabilities. Furthermore, the letter recommends that the review examine how the UMLAP works in tandem with accessibility services to examine what barriers might exist for students accessing these services, and that it should ensure that student groups and student voices are included in the review process. 

Initially, the OHRC was concerned that the UMLAP might fail to meet the Human Rights Code or the OHRC policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability, and therefore infringe on students’ rights. It also expressed concerns about the policy’s ability to take away services like housing and health and counselling from students who are put on leave. 

Though U of T addressed some of these concerns, DeGuire further objected to a September 27 statement from Professor Donald Ainslie, who is running the UMLAP review. In the statement, Ainslie claimed that the university had addressed all of the OHRC’s concerns about the policy before it was passed in 2018. 

“This statement is not accurate, as the OHRC continued to have concerns with the revised version of the UMLAP, which was ultimately approved,” responded DeGuire. 

“The OHRC appreciates that the University of Toronto has posted the OHRC letter, as well as the University of Toronto reply, on its student consultation website so that the correspondence contributes to an open dialogue on the policy.” wrote Adewonuola Johnson, the OHRC’s issues and media relations officer, in an email to The Varsity. “The OHRC is reviewing the University of Toronto’s response and has no further comments.”

Responses from the administration

At the University Affairs Board meeting, Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh said that, following the 2018 letter, “the university obtained expert external legal review of the draft policy by someone with an expertise in human rights and our obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and we believe the current policy is fully compliant.” She added that there are, however, areas where the policy can be revised, and that the university will “carefully consider” the review’s recommendations. 

In a response to the OHRC letter, Young wrote that before the UMLAP was established in 2018, the university addressed the OHRC’s concerns about the policy. 

“Although the Policy is deployed rarely, it provides important protections for students – including facilitating the provision of services and supports to enhance opportunities for affected students to be successful in their university education,” wrote Young. He emphasized that students who are put on leave still have access to campus services, and are assigned a Case Manager and Student Support Team, which includes a licensed psychiatrist. He also gave an outline of how the review has been conducted so far. 

Jaime Kearns, the president of the Association of Part-Time Graduate Students, spoke at the meeting to criticize Young’s response to the OHRC letter. 

“We feel that the reply is inadequate, as it does not meaningfully address the concerns raised by the OHRC,” said Kearns. They called for an extension of the review process to allow for a more thorough review, and said the university should reach out to the OHRC to get a recommendation for external reviewers who could look at the policy. 

The Varsity has reached out to the UTSU and the UTMSU for comment. 

— With files from Elizabeth Shechtman.