U of T recently decided to discontinue New College’s Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health (BPMH) program. This decision prompted criticism from faculty and students, and concerns about mental health and course offerings. In response, students have organized sit-ins and a petition calling on the university to retain the program.
The university cited “operational inefficiencies stemming from a lack of dedicated full-time continuing faculty” in its decision to shut down the BPMH program, according to Arts & Science Student Union President Anusha Madhusudanan, who has been in consultations with the university.
As of January 7, the program’s website states that “enrolment in the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Minor will be administratively suspended as of January 31, 2024, and students will no longer be able to enrol in the program.”
A sudden shutdown
According to a November press release from Professor Frances Garrett, the director of the BPMH program, and student organizers, New College Interim Principal Dickson Eyoh told students and faculty that the college planned to close enrollment in the program this year.
Garrett shared in an interview with The Varsity that she was on a research trip in Nepal when she heard about the program’s shutdown. “They announced the closure of the program and the suspension of new enrollments into the program before they had consulted anyone, not even the faculty… that itself is very strange. It’s very sudden,” she said.
Garrett is also unhappy with the university’s reasoning for the shutdown, as she said that many related departments with faculty would be thrilled to teach in and support the program.
“It isn’t a sign of their commitment to mental health among students, that’s for sure,” she said. She also added that the university lacks awareness of movements currently supporting student well-being in academic programs in other North American institutions, including UCLA, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and University of Virginia.
Aside from concerns over the university’s attitude toward students’ mental health, there are also concerns over the university’s attitude toward cultural diversity and inclusion in academia.
“The uniqueness of the BPM program lies in its approach, which places value on Eastern perspectives in mental health and psychology—an aspect often overlooked in other analyses within the university’s psychology departments,” wrote Madhusudanan in an email to The Varsity.
According to Calista Barber, a BPMH peer mentor, the students and professors who have been organizing for the program plan to continue advocating for it in the new year, as they believe that the program has enabled them to form rich, deeper, relationships with their peers, their communities and the world around them.
The program’s origins
Founded in 2007 in New College, the program grew from 34 students in the 2007–2008 school year to a total of 308 students in 2020–2021, becoming the second-largest program at the college. According to the program’s website, many BPMH courses typically have long waiting lists.
With a focus on mindfulness — the practice of paying attention to the present — many BPMH courses draw on contemplative pedagogies, which encourage students to connect their lived, embodied experiences to ideologies they learn in the classroom.
Jennifer Bright, assistant professor of Buddhist Spiritual Care and Counselling at Emmanuel College, also said she was disappointed about the university’s decision. According to Bright, many of her students have shared with her that they deal with serious personal and intergenerational trauma. She says that they saw BPMH courses as a life-changing program, as it encourages students to take positive steps towards their mental well-being.
Student opposition to the shutdown
According to Madhusudanan and Barber, students, in particular, have been actively pushing back against the BPMH’s closure.
Peers Are There to Help (PATH), a peer support network in the program, and the Buddhism and Psychology Student Union (BPSU) started a petition that had accrued more than 1,500 signatures as of January 5, 2024. The groups have also met with the New College administration through student consultations to “voice community concerns” and “[seek] clarification on the rationale behind the program’s discontinuation,” according to Madhusudanan.
In addition, PATH and BPSU have hosted a joint sit-in at Sidney Smith Hall to demonstrate support for the BPMH program.
So far, according to Madhusudanan, the university has confirmed that “[the] proposed program closure will not be discussed in January governance meetings, which allows more time for the promised consultation processes.”
“The collective efforts of students and professors reflect a shared commitment to preserving a program that has played a vital role in fostering a unique and enriching educational experience,” wrote Madhusudanan.
With files from Cedric Jiang.
U of T did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment in time for publication.
Editor’s note (January 14): The headline for this article has been updated to reflect that U of T did not cancel the program; at this point, it has only proposed the cancellation. It has also been updated to reflect that the New College Interim Principal, who informed students and professors of the proposed cancellation, was Dickson Eyoh, not Yves Roberge.