University releases reviews on academic units, programs

Reports detail high-quality work of students, faculty, lack of career opportunities

University releases reviews on academic units, programs

U of T’s Committee on Academic Policy and Programs (AP&P) has released its semi-annual report on reviews of the university’s academic units and programs. The reviews, on the whole, show that students continue to perform at a very high level, though there remains a shortfall of career opportunities for undergraduates.

The extensive body of scholarly work produced by the university’s faculty was also among the reviewers’ positive comments. Areas of concern that reviewers recognized consisted of a lack of strategic planning of curriculum and an absence of support for research and experiential learning. Also noted were graduate student time-to-completion rates, which have been improving, yet “require continued support.”

Academic programs and units are reviewed every eight years, in accordance with the university’s policy for approval and review of academic programs and units as well as the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance.

According to Sioban Nelson, Vice-Provost Faculty and Academic Life, these reviews are key in assessing the strengths of a program and addressing areas of concern. Nelson emphasized that the process is meant to be thorough and positive. She said that reviews are neither about papering over issues nor trying to hide problems. “It’s meant to bring your colleagues in and to say, ‘We’ve got problems.’”

The AP&P also released its follow-up review of three programs and two faculties that warranted a report after initial auditing: two programs within the Faculty of Arts & Science, the Faculty of Forestry, the Ontario Institute of Secondary Education (OISE), and the Health Studies program at UTSC.

One-year follow-up reports are requested when programs with particular concerns — such as financial health, long-term sustainability, and faculty support — require a longer period of response.

The AP&P reports were reviewed by the Academic Board on Thursday, November 23 and will be finalized by the Governing Council on December 14, 2017.

Faculty of Arts & Science: East Asian Studies and Ethics, Society, and Law

With concerns over the Department of East Asian Studies’ curriculum and financial health, the AP&P requested a one-year follow-up report to detail the department’s method of addressing their concerns.

Curricula for the department’s programs have been taken under review to streamline its undergraduate program with the assessment of pre-requisite standards and enrolment controls. The financial health concerns within the program were met with additional half-course equivalents, four of which were approved for immediate action, as well as funds for non-teaching discretionary resources — funds for conferences, invited speakers, and graduate travel, among other initiatives. In addition, funds were committed to the renovation of the department’s office spaces.

The AP&P also requested a follow-up report from the Ethics, Society, and Law undergraduate program addressing the issues of long-term sustainability of the program and support for sessional instructors.

In the follow-up, Dean and Professor of Political Science David Cameron affirms the program’s viability — applicant numbers are usually around 500, while the program only admits 75–80 students per year. Furthermore, the program has cut down on the number of sessional instructors for first-year courses, guaranteeing they will be taught by tenured professors, while third- and fourth-year optional courses have a higher proportion of sessional instructors.

Faculty of Forestry

AP&P reviewers of the Faculty of Forestry had three specific concerns: the hiring of more faculty, the undergraduate program, and the relationship between the Faculty of Forestry and the Faculty of Arts & Science.


After Professor Glen Jones was appointed the new Dean of OISE in July 2016, emphasis was placed on the next five years of the institute’s future with regard to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations and OISE’s structural deficit.

Following a review of the initial OISE academic plan, a one-year follow-up report was requested by the AP&P. The follow-up report stressed the need to engage in novel academic planning that would prioritize the right issues for the next round of the program’s development.

UTSC: Health Studies

The review of the UTSC undergraduate program in Health Studies provided two areas in which the program could improve: strengthening of leadership within the program as it undergoes restructuring, and addressing how Health Studies can fall under both a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree. The reviewers claimed that the unique program structure produces “false binaries” between pathways of biological science and social science.

William Gough, Vice-Principal Academic and Dean of Environmental Science, addressed the reviewers’ suggestions in his follow-up letter to Nelson.

The administration worked to address the first concern about leadership in the formation of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society (ICHS) as an extra departmental unit. The ICHS would be the foundation for the Health Studies program, so that it could develop into a stronger program, providing the programs with funding and facilitating the “cross-pollination” of Health Studies with other programs at UTSC.

The concern about the binary nature of the program as both BA and BSc was refuted by the administration. Gough explained that both degrees being part of the program is crucial to its nature, as its required courses tend to take a multidisciplinary approach toward the content.

Instructor accused of plagiarism

Students take petition to undergraduate student advisor

Instructor accused of plagiarism

A course instructor in the Department of Earth Sciences has been accused of plagiarism. While the accusations have been brought forward to the department, some students maintain that the issue has not been properly addressed. 

The accused, Tugce Sahin, is a PhD candidate in geology and Earth sciences. She is currently teaching the ENV233 course, “Earth System Chemistry.”   

According to Justin*, a student in the class, Sahin’s lecture slides are taken from material produced at other universities; in some cases, this includes fourth-year course material, which he considers to be inappropriate for a second-year class. 

“Not only is there detail [in the slides] that [students] should not have to understand, but also detail that the lecturer herself does not understand,” stated Justin. “I and the class strongly believe that she doesn’t have enough of a chemistry and mathematical background to teach the course,” he added.    

Justin grew suspicious after he noticed that the syntax in the lecture slides was not consistent with Sahin’s own style. He copied and pasted the text into a search engine and quickly found the source. “I found some from a professor in the University of California, I found some from a professor in Memorial University, I found some in books online… lots of places,” he said.

Justin alleged that students did not raise their concerns directly to the lecturer, but that they did point out mistakes that she made. “At first she listened but then after that she started resenting it and said ‘Just look in your book, I know I’m doing it right.’”

In order to resolve these issues, three students brought a petition signed by reportedly 12 students to David Powell, the undergraduate student advisor and placement coordinator for the U of T School of Environment.

Justin said that the students showed Powell quizzes and assignments that they believed to have been marked incorrectly, as well as lecture slides which were allegedly unsourced and plagiarized verbatim.   

After Powell raised the issue with the chair of the Earth sciences department, the lecture slides were re-uploaded with a reference slide at the end. Justin still considers this change to be unsatisfactory. “The content of the slides had not changed; it was still plagiarized in my view. It was still exactly the same, taken from the source,” he said.

In addition to the changes to the presentation, the course midterm was bumped up by 25 per cent and a guest lecturer was brought in for half of the remaining lectures.    

“In my personal opinion, [the changes] haven’t done much for me,” said Joanna*, another student in the class. “The current lecturer is still there and the mark is still there as a poor reflection. I feel it should have been addressed earlier to avoid poor academic performance.”   

Like Justin, she also believes that the content of the slides weren’t changed apart from the addition of a slide with references. “Well, there was one point where all the notes were removed from blackboard,” she commented, “and then a couple of days later, it was reloaded but… it looked the same.” 

“She did add sources though at the end to ‘reference’, but I’m not sure how accurate those citations were,” said Joanna.

Joanna said that she is unsure as to whether or not the current professor will be replaced.

While the administration declined to comment, according to Justin, an email was sent out to students on Thursday saying that going to The Varsity and “spreading incorrect and potentially defamatory information is not a constructive way to resolve issues. It could be construed as bullying under the code of student conduct and, depending on what is written, might also be regarded as libel.” The class was also invited to a meeting to address any further concerns. 

Sahin did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

*Name changed at individual’s request.

Debunking U of T’s dropout myth

Students in need of support when leaving university

Debunking U of T’s dropout myth

“I’d heard that the dropout rate was nearly half, and was told that the first year of U of T was designed to weed people out,” says first-year student Tessa Mahrt-Smith. It’s not an uncommon opinion among incoming U of T students. Chatter among high school students, first-year students, and Internet forums such as College Confidential and The Student Room perpetuate the myth.

Contrary to the opinions of many, U of T has one of the highest first-year retention rates in the country  a rate that stood at 91 per cent between 2002 and 2012. From 2012-2013, it rose to 92 per cent, compared to an average of 88.5 per cent among other “Highly Selective Public” universities and 82.6 per cent among all other public universities. 

“I’d heard going into U of T that a lot of people dropped out, but then I came to realize in second semester that I didn’t really know anyone who had left or noticed any significant number of people at all missing from my classes,” says first-year student John-Alan Slachta. 

Perhaps the reputation itself is self-defeating. “I feel like a lot of  people hear that 50 per cent dropout rate statistic and decide that they wouldn’t be able to cut it here. And suddenly those potential dropouts don’t even come to the school,” first-year student Kamal Jha speculates.   

U of T’s entrance averages in the 85 per cent – 100 per cent range are significantly higher than those of other Ontario universities as of 2013; dovetailing that statistic is the lower number of students in the less than 80 per cent and 81 per cent –84 per cent ranges compared to other Ontario universities. 

The Varsity spoke to former students who left U of T before graduating and their comments painted a different picture than the stereotypical dropout would suggest. These are individuals who dropped out due to personal reasons but have concrete plans for their futures.   

Marie*, a former student who dropped out at the start of this semester, said she dropped out because she was not enjoying the course in which she was enrolled. “Architectural Studies at U of T was my backup program and I have not been able to find enough, if any, enjoyment in it in order to want to continue on,” she explained, Marie’s plans for the future “include obtaining a Bachelor of Design degree in Fashion Communications from Ryerson and possibly Mastering in Fashion so I can pursue a career in a field I’m excited about.”   

Sarah*, also a former student, dropped out for mental health-related reasons. “I had to drop out because I was having panic attacks very frequently and it just escalated really fast so I needed to take a break and figure out what I want to do and get help.” She said that she plans to return to U of T, “ideally for a couple of summer courses but, if not, September for sure.” 

Both former students had different experiences interacting with the university when they dropped out. “Honestly, University of Toronto didn’t support me at all through the process of dropping out. I emailed my registrar and they just told me they were sorry that I was not longer interested in my program and sent me links on how to possibly apply to a separate program within the university and how to drop out. It was very much a do-it-yourself process,” said Marie.   

This is in contrast with Sarah’s experience, which she says was positive. Sarah says that her registrar “fully supported my decision and made the process so much easier and more comfortable for me. She told me about all the different things I could do when I return, like contacting accessibility services if I need help and places for counselling on campus. She was also the reason I got some of my tuition back, and I’m forever grateful for her.” 

The widespread myth of first-year failure may be unfounded, but the varying processes of dropping out are very real. This university, which does not have a systemic issue with dropouts, has no unified process that all students can consult.

What are they doing with your data?

Behind the university’s statement on Piazza

What are they doing with your data?

There are some at U of T who worry that Piazza may be permitted to sell the information of its student users, an accusation that the company flatly denies.

Piazza is a free online Q&A platform commonly used by — but not limited to — instructors teaching computer science, statistics, and mathematics. Students can post questions, to which instructors and other students can provide answers, and instructors can also post announcements on the website.

U of T released a statement to instructors and students this past December, outlining its concerns. “The Piazza Privacy Policy and Terms of Use provide for substantial sharing and use, including commercial use, of personal information of students,” the statement reads. However, the university has placed no formal restrictions on the use of Piazza.

Professor Susan McCahan serves as vice provost, innovations in undergraduate education. Part of McCahan’s role at U of T is to evaluate new educational technologies.

“The company has publicly said that they do not sell student data without the student’s permission,” McCahan said. “But their documents, their agreements, the click-through that you do when you create a Piazza account, does not make that clear at all. It’s not clear that there is an opt in.”

Rather, McCahan interprets those documents as allowing the company to “do what they want” with student data. “Anyone they sell it to can do what they want with your data as well,” says McCahan. “It frees up a whole chain of data transfer from any kind of oversight.”

The Varsity contacted Piazza Technologies, the parent company that developed the platform, and who denied any wrongdoing is taking place. “We don’t sell student data,” said John Knight, of the Piazza User Operations Team. “We were built on trust and take that trust seriously.”

Why use Piazza at all?

Paul Chow is a professor of Computer Engineering and Electronics at U of T. One course he teaches, ECE532 Digital Systems and Design, uses Piazza extensively; in addition to the discussion board, nearly all course information is placed exclusively on Piazza with the exception of student grades, which appears on Blackboard, U of T’s main online learning platform.

Chow explains that Piazza’s ease of use makes it a better system for communicating with students. “The approved university platform does not allow me, and my other colleagues using Piazza, to provide the interaction we want to provide to the students,” he says. “We use Piazza because the students will get more out of the course.”

“Piazza is significantly better than the Blackboard discussion platform,” said Theo Poenaru, a second-year computer science student who said that roughly half of his courses have a Piazza component.

In addition to the “very natural organization” of the Q and A platform that makes it easy to use, Poenaru also likes the ability for questions in a discussion to be posted without revealing the posters name to other students. He says this feature “removes the fear of questions being labelled stupid and pushes students to ask more questions than they would otherwise.”

As far as privacy concerns, Poenaru doesn’t have any. “I see they have my name, university, courses taken, and email address. That isn’t information for which there is generally a high expectation of privacy. I would definitely not stop using Piazza because of this.”

Chow said that no students have come to him with privacy concerns thus far, that if needed, he could help a student register on Piazza using non-U of T email address, under a pseudonym.

Piazza allows students to use alternate names. Chow is critical of the fact that U of T did not make instructors and students aware of this feature, which he learned of from colleagues at other universities.

“I think the university could have spent more time investigating how to help the instructors use their choice of platforms within the “rules” rather than just posting a warning about it,” said Chow.

A better Blackboard?

Given the caution in U of T’s December statement, it may come as a surprise to students and instructors to learn that the university had been looking into the possibility of integrating Piazza directly into Blackboard as early as 2014, when they first reached out to the company.

Using third party technologies is a standard part of U of T’s approach to improving Blackboard. “We regularly review all kinds of technologies that can bolt into Blackboard,” explains McCahan. “We have some of them that are available, sort of seamlessly integrated … In fact, you might not know that it’s a different vendor, right, because it just sort of appears inside the course shell as if its part of Blackboard.”

Relating the story of the initial contact between Piazza and U of T, McCahan said that Piazza expressed hesitation in engaging in the discussion and that the university’s understanding time that they were hesitant because they were still a relatively small start-up company.

Correspondence between Piazza and the university picked up again in March of 2015, and continued through October until, in McCahan’s description, the company stopped responding.  “They haven’t been returning our phone calls, essentially,” she said.

“We went forward with doing a little bit of digging,” McCahan continued. “We didn’t go through a formal review, which we would do to accept a technology. But we did enough digging to determine that there were some issues with the technology.” It was these issues that led to the December statement.

Knight said that the reason for Piazza’s lack of communication with U of T was simply the small size of the company; the employee who handles partnerships with universities was assigned to a different project. “We’d very much like to build a relationship with UT [sic] but we’re a small team (34 people) serving over 1M students for free,” he explains. “We’re certainly not abandoning a partnership, just putting it off until we have the bandwidth to make it happen.”

The Portal to the future

Faculty gathering student input for new learning interface

The Portal to the future

The Faculty of Arts & Science is reviewing U of T’s learning management engine (LME), which is currently provided by Blackboard. There are plans to develop a new LME: the Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative. In anticipation of this new system, the faculty hosted a townhall on Portal, where students came to air their grievances and give feedback about the interface. 

A little over a year ago, The Varsity reported on the persistent outages and maintenance hours that Blackboard faced, and many students believe that they feel a disconnect with their instructors.

Professors and students have expressed frustrations with the current LME. One student who attended the town hall criticized its user unfriendliness, mentioning that one of her peers pasted her assignment in a comment box rather than the assignment submission box, which could have affected her grade. In addition, professors are not required to use Blackboard to submit grades, which leaves some students frustrated with the inaccessibility.

Learning tools such as gamification modules, marking interfaces, publishing capabilities, and many more are on the long list of suggestions for the new framework. The faculty discussed features such as a calendar for assignments and exams, and many of the technologies were scheduled for renewal last year. Out of the three stages of the LME development, the initiative is in its second phase. 

Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union, also criticized the lack of “user-friendliness” of the current Portal system. 

“No one knows how it works,” Shihipar said. The lack of a search option, the inability to edit the types of tools needed for each course, and nothing “more than just a text option” for the current organization function, were a few of the grievances he aired on behalf of himself and other students who reached out to him over social media.   

The university is currently accepting comments for the new LME online. Shihipar encouraged students to have their voice heard saying, “before this process is over, get [your feedback] in.”

Carolyn Bennett joins call for mandatory Aboriginal studies course

Indigenous and northern affairs minister signs U of T NSA petition

Carolyn Bennett joins call for mandatory Aboriginal studies course

Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, voiced her support for mandatory Indigenous studies classes for every university student. At a talk on January 25 entitled “Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic” at the University of Toronto, she highlighted the importance of educating all Canadians about Indigenous knowledge systems, traditions, and cultural practices.

Bennett, the self-described “minister of reconciliation,” said that “we have to begin work in our understanding with the reconciliation with the people of the north, but also of course a reconciliation with the land, which is in some ways what climate change and all of this is about.” 

“It is important that northern voices be fully heard in the formulation of the Canadian approach with recognition of the place of Indigenous knowledge,” Bennett added.

When asked about what the Canadian government plans to achieve in terms of implementing the recommendations put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with regards to education, Bennett remarked that she has been pleased to see many universities taking up the Calls to Action of the TRC. She praised the University of Winnipeg in particular for implementing a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for all students.   

“If people don’t understand the Indian Act, Residential Schools, the effects of colonization, if even the clinicians don’t understand PTSD in that lens, we aren’t gonna win,” Bennett said.

Members of the Native Students’ Association (NSA) caught up with the minister to ask for her signature on their petition for a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for U of T undergraduate students, which she did.

“I feel overwhelmed and a sense of great pride to be a part of the wonderful community. So many kind and generous people are supporting our cause. The response has created a new community, one that is dedicated to diversify our education and hear the voices of my ancestors,” said Audrey Rochette, crane and governance leader of the NSA. “The next phase in our petition will be to draft a proposal which will be reviewed by our council and select faculty members to ensure it meets the criteria of such a strong call to action that it simply can not be dismissed with a no,” Rochette said.

Minister Bennett also suggested that book clubs across Canada begin adding works by Indigenous authors or allies to their reading lists. “Ninety-six per cent of Canadians who are not from an Indigenous background have to actually get with the program and realize what they don’t know. That’s what Justice [Murray] Sinclair has been saying about ‘the secret of shame,’ the fact that it was still a secret, and that what we’re hearing from so many Canadians now is ‘How come I didn’t know that?’ and ‘How come I never learned that?’”   

Bennett is a University of Toronto alum. She said that when she graduated from U of T, swimming the length of a pool was a requirement. “So I’ve now changed my view; I think you shouldn’t be able to graduate unless you’ve done at least one course in Indigenous studies,” a statement that was met with applause.