Last fall, U of T made public a proposal to terminate its Buddhist, Psychology, and Mental Health Program (BPMH) minor program, to the shock of both faculty and students. Program enrollment has since been suspended and courses have been closed to non-program students.

The program’s initial review began before the pandemic and has passed between administrative faculty changes. Students and faculty have criticized the termination process for poor transparency and contradictory information from the administration, which caused confusion and frustration. In my experience attending student consultations, the administration appears to be deeply out of touch with what the BPMH program has to offer.

Since the program’s suspension announcement, a Protect the BPMH Program petition organized by student groups gained 1,950 signatures as of May 18, 2024. Alongside 44 letters from local and international scientists, scholars, and community members, current and past students have written an additional 77 letters of support. 

As a member of the student community invested in a diverse and enriching education, I believe the BPMH program is invaluable and its potential termination should warrant careful consideration by the university. 

Bridging academic excellence with real-world impact

In my experience, the BPMH faculty demonstrates a higher calibre of competence and care toward facilitating meaningful learning and discovery for students. 

Despite having already taken two advanced statistics courses as part of the psychology major program, it was in Assistant Professor Elli Weisbaum’s course, BPM438, where I gained crucial insight into the greater purpose of research: producing trustworthy knowledge to better humanity. BPM438 required the comparative analysis of academic research and facilitated graduate-level discussions on the challenges, pitfalls, and best practices of conducting research. 

Last November, Professor Weisbaum co-authored and published a qualitative research study on the impact of mindfulness interventions on physician well-being and performance in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In accordance with the principles Professor Weisbaum taught throughout BPM438, her publication is an example of bringing peripheral streams of knowledge into the forefront of academic discussion through rigorous inquiry and adaptive methodology, exemplifying qualitative research as a gold standard in fields where it is typically overlooked. 

BPM433 takes this statistical understanding of knowledge production and flips it on its head. The course, which teaches meditation through practical learning, is co-taught by Buddhist monk, Brother Phap Linh. From my experience, this course gives students the chance to gain a first-hand, embodied understanding of meditation’s effect and non-colonial ways of understanding and being.

Another exemplary course, BPM335, is taught by sessional lecturer Paul Whissell. It is impeccably organized, thoroughly engaging, and masterfully extracts all the most relevant empirical findings on the effects of meditation on the body. The first day of BPM335 is the only time I have witnessed a room of over 100 students applaud at the end of a three-hour lecture. 

Finally, Professor Mark Miller’s BPM432 is also an outstanding course. Here, students learn about the mechanisms of meditation through the active inference framework a unifying theory of how the brain works based on Bayesian statistics and Friston’s free energy principle. The theory proposes that the brain constantly generates and updates predictions about sensory input to minimize prediction errors and create a coherent perception of reality. In BPM432, students dive into how meditation influences the predictive mechanisms of the brain. Students also have the unique opportunity to speak directly with the top researchers in the field during Professor Miller’s seminars.

The decision to terminate such a pioneering program sends a disheartening message to both students and faculty regarding the institution’s commitment to groundbreaking research and academic excellence.

A revolutionary transdisciplinary approach to knowledge and wellness

The BPMH program is not only an academic pursuit but is revolutionary for understanding and addressing mental health concerns. The program uniquely intertwines experiential wisdom from contemplative traditions with contemporary mental health research it uniquely considers the intersection of Eastern and Western perspectives in the science of knowledge and the pursuit of well-being. This has notably been absent in my experience with courses from both the Buddhism Major and Psychology Major on their own. 

In a world beset by widespread suffering, ever apparent in current global tragedies, the decision to terminate a program dedicated to understanding and alleviating suffering appears profoundly out of touch. 

Terminating the BPMH program appears not only academically regressive and ethically out of touch, but also fails to reflect the burgeoning interest in alternative medicine where traditional methods fall short. 

The wellness and mental health industry is a market now worth more than 1.5 trillion USD. A local example of this trend is Othership, a Toronto-based organization that opened in early 2022 with nearly $10 million in venture funding and has recently expanded its services in Yorkville. Essential to Othership’s offerings is meditative breathwork — a practice grounded in the principles discussed by the BPMH program — which highlights the program’s relevance to current market trends. 

The global interest is similarly reflected in U of T’s student body. Since its inception, enrollment in the BPMH program has risen from 34 students in 2007–2008 to 343 students in 2022–2023: over a 900 per cent increase. Investing in BPMH is an investment in the long-term relevance of students’ academic pursuits.

A call for ethical leadership and long-term vision

As individuals with decision-making power, the administration’s values and priorities influence the direction of its institution. Their values consequently shape students’ educational pursuits and experiences within its walls, and in turn, their endeavours beyond its walls. With this power comes the responsibility to wield it judiciously. 

I hope that with the administration’s wisdom and leadership, U of T will continue to be a beacon of academic diversity and excellence.

Chloe Gauthier is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying psychology, Buddhism and BPMH.