Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment.
On November 22, the University Affairs Board (UAB) met for the second time this academic year. Despite misgivings from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project, the UAB voted to recommend that the Governing Council accept the university’s revisions to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. Board members also reviewed annual reports on the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP), the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre (SVPSC), and Non-Academic Discipline.
Revising the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment
The Ontario government requires universities to review their sexual assault policies at least once every three years. In July 2022, the U of T administration accepted all 12 recommendations from the review of the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. As part of implementing the review’s recommendations, Sandy Welsh — vice-provost, students — presented potential revisions to the policy at the UAB meeting. The revisions include adding a clause that would require U of T to annually publish statistical information on the incidence of campus sexual violence. It also includes using stronger language to stress zero tolerance for retaliation against those who have brought forward sexual harassment allegations.
Following Welsh’s presentation, two students spoke: UTSU President Omar Gharbiyeh and Jay Prentice. Prentice is the internal director and events coordinator at the PEARS Project, a tricampus coalition that supports survivors and advocates against sexual violence on campus.
“We’re happy with the direction [the policy is] taking, but it’s insufficient,” said Gharbiyeh. He added that the Vice-Provost’s office has not met many of the UTSU’s concerns, especially around the issue of consent.
Prentice echoed this sentiment. “It is unacceptable that the university keeps trying to get away with policies that do the bare minimum,” they said.
Gharbiyeh also slammed the policy for “jargon and ambiguity,” and argued that the reviewers did not sufficiently consult with the community.
Both speakers referenced how UTM Professor Robert Reisz violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. “It is difficult to see this as anything other than a systemic failure,” said Gharbiyeh. “This has reached a point of liability for the institution.”
Prentice called on the university to act against Reisz. “This is evidence that our entire policy, practices, and system are dangerously ineffective. We need real change and real action,” they said.
Despite these objections and three abstentions, the UAB voted to recommend that the Governing Council approve the proposed revisions to the policy.
UMLAP Annual Report
Welsh also presented the annual report on UMLAP, a policy that allows the vice provost to place students on leave in cases of significant concerns about the students’ mental health, as well as the safety and wellbeing of others. According to the report, the Vice-Provost has placed 17 students on leave since the policy’s implementation in 2018. In 2021–2022, the Welsh received seven requests to invoke the policy and placed four students on mandatory leaves of absence.
Members of the U of T community and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have criticized UMLAP, arguing that the policy discourages students from accessing mental health treatment and disrespects student autonomy.“I acknowledge that there have been students that are concerned about seeking help from health and counseling services across the university because they fear that they will be put on a leave,” said Welsh.
However, Welsh explained that campus counselling services maintain confidentiality, as required by Ontario law. Additionally, the policy is only invoked in response to “serious concerning behaviour,” and not in response to students disclosing mental health issues.
Welsh highlighted the limited use and compassionate intention behind UMLAP. “The policy is intended as a last resort when all other attempts and accommodative measures have been exhausted,” said Welsh. The Vice-Provost is currently finalizing amendments to UMLAP based on a 2021 review. They hope to present the revisions next term.
Report of the SVPSC
Angela Treglia, director of the SVPSC, delivered SVPSC’s annual report to the UAB. The SVPSC is a tri-campus resource that aims to assist and support survivors of gender-based violence and encourage consent culture at U of T.
Over the past year, the SVPSC ran 75 educational initiatives, including a two-day symposium and workshops on art, boundaries, and men’s role in combating gender-based violence. They also received 308 requests for support from community members who had experienced or become aware of a sexual violence or harassment incident. Of these requests, most came from students, and 25 resulted in reports of sexual violence.
“We know that it can be difficult and can take some time before someone feels safe disclosing and disclosing at all, and we want to be able to provide a safe space for someone who may be seeking support and wondering where to go next,” said Treglia.
Some students have criticized the SVPSC for unresponsiveness and lack of transparency. “We are working towards building and reinforcing trust and increasing awareness of our services through the development of an awareness campaign and redesign of our website and strategic communication initiatives,” said Treglia.
Currently, the centre is developing new bystander intervention and substance use trainings and collaborating with the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office to revise trainings on the intersections between racism and sexual violence.