U of T’s mental health task force is largely performative so far

Initiative must tackle academic and admission policies to truly create tangible change

U of T’s mental health task force is largely performative so far

Content warning: this article contains discussions of suicide.

In the wake of a death by suicide at Bahen Centre for Information Technology on March 17, U of T President Meric Gertler issued a letter to students, staff, and faculty announcing the formation of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. This letter followed a large public outcry concerning the university’s inaction over the mental health crisis.

The task force was created to work toward the priorities identified in the university’s Student Mental Health Framework report. The mandate of the task force includes a review of mental health service delivery, coordination of tri-campus student mental health support, and partnerships with community-based mental health organizations. 

While the task force aims to strengthen pre-existing policies and improve mental health facilities, its mandate does not effectively tackle one major cause of stress: the administration’s academic and admission policies.  

University is a huge stepping stone from secondary education; many students find themselves in a completely new and strange environment. This can take a huge toll on a student’s academic performance.

And yet, it is a huge task to reserve an appointment with a health and wellness counsellor if the wait time for these services is too long. There is a lack of adequate safe counselling spaces and counsellors amongst the three campuses. Regardless of what the administrative policies might be, every student should have access to these services. 

Students are hoping to see more effective communication with faculty and staff to improve on these services. They hope to see tangible change. 

Earlier this year, President Gertler issued a statement clarifying that students’ mental health and physical well-being are the university’s utmost priority. 

However, “if that really was the case, then that needs to be embodied in the academic culture on all three campuses,” remarked Lina Maragha, a representative of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s ad hoc mental health committee. 

Academic culture has become toxic over the years, as represented by the mandated leave of absence policy. The policy not only potentially forces student facing mental illnesses to take leave from school, but also restricts them from accessing numerous services, including those provided by the Health & Wellness Centre. 

To restrict access to not just education, but also to essential services such as fitness centres, forces students to conceal their mental illnesses and prioritize academic achievement over mental well-being. Indeed, students may feel pressured or ashamed by their circumstances. 

Students want to see President Gertler’s message incorporated in the way that student life is structured and envisioned, including increasing academic forgiveness policies, having lenient timelines for credit/no credit options, and late withdrawal for any courses. 

As the task force’s mandate fails to address the GPA admission requirements to enter specific programs of study, there are steps that the administration can take toward creating a less stressful academic system. Other than lowering cutoff grades, U of T should make the program selection system abundantly clear to all prospective students. 

In conjunction, the university should discuss directly admitting students into their programs in their first year, as is the case in numerous prestigious universities around the world. Moreover, a more holistic application process may be a better reflection of students’ abilities, and the admissions committee may be able to grasp a better understanding of who the student really is.

Earlier this summer, U of T revealed the 13  members of the task force, with four students representing the diverse student population at three campuses. 

Maragha further commented that, “the current composition of the task force may not truly reflect the lived experiences of mental health by the community.” To tackle this, members of the community believe that it is important for the task force to have continuous discussions and consultations with students of all levels and status, and for the task force to integrate these consultations into its recommendations. 

Furthermore, there have also been instances where professors do not take mental health illnesses seriously or act in a manner which might cause stress to some students. For instance, in a 2016 article reported by City News, a professor dismissed a student because they did not “look sick.” 

Computer science students should be a particular focal point of the task force. Two deaths by suicide occured at the Bahen Centre this past year, which is the hub of computer science classes. These students are under intense pressure not only to get into their program, but also to succeed in highly competitive classes. 

“Even with the minimal changes previously made for U of T mental health services, students are still hopeful about changes in the near future,” said Maragha. 

The task force was formed as a result of increasing public pressure. The university administration failed to publicly recognize protesters for nearly two weeks, and mental health activists were shut down at Governing Council meetings. The announcement of the task force came after vast media coverage, and seems largely performative thus far.

Only one task force was made for three campuses that are in different geographical areas and whose student demographics differ drastically. This is not enough to review and address the entire community’s concerns. Only if and when the task force considers recommendations by students, and is willing to communicate effectively, will we begin to see a change in the happiness and health of the student population.

Vinayak Tuteja is a second-year Neuroscience and Bioinformatics student at University College.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

U of T begins Faculty of Forestry disestablishment process

Governance committee approves transferring faculty to Daniels despite student opposition, final vote on June 25

U of T begins Faculty of Forestry disestablishment process

U of T’s Planning and Budget Committee (PBC) has unanimously recommended the disestablishment of the Faculty of Forestry and its restructuring as a graduate unit under the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. The proposal must still be voted on by the Academic Board and the Executive Committee before being approved by Governing Council on June 25. If approved, the Faculty of Forestry would be disestablished, effective July 1.

Under this plan, the existing Forestry programs would continue to operate, but administrative and financial duties, including Forestry’s budget, would be moved under the jurisdiction of the Daniels Faculty. Financial aid would continue at current levels following the potential restructuring, as would Forestry endowments.

The restructuring proposal is motivated in part by the Faculty of Forestry’s projected long term financial unsustainability, and by the synergies between Daniels and Forestry programs.

Forestry Graduate Student Association (FGSA) Chair Nicole Tratnik urged the committee to reconsider the proposal because it does not meet students’ needs, but the proposal nonetheless received unanimous recommendation.

U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that restructuring Forestry would be “a unique moment when the discipline can be redefined within the context of the university and wider society, and where the new synergies and opportunities can be realized.” The proposal discusses this potential in research areas such as “bio products, landscape conservation, or mass timber use in building design and construction.”

Tratnik, however, believes the proposal is inadequate in its current form. “Forestry and architecture could be something novel and rewarding, but if done badly, could result in the loss of Canada’s oldest institution of Forestry, a pillar of higher education and research excellence at a time when Canada’s forests face unprecedented change,” she said.

Proposed Daniels budget

The proposal notes that despite managing a balanced budget, the Faculty of Forestry will not be financially sustainable in the long term. In addition to moving Forestry’s budget to Daniels, U of T would also provide an additional $1 million to its base budget “to support future collaborations amongst faculty members and the Faculty’s overall sustainability.”

Tratnik criticized the vagueness of the commitment and said that there is no guarantee this would be used to support Forestry directly. She also questioned U of T’s proposal to allocate this $1 million to Daniels, rather than allocating that money to directly support the Faculty of Forestry.

Under the proposal, the Dean of Forestry position would cease to exist, and Daniels Dean Richard Sommer would have administrative and budgetary responsibility for Forestry, “including responsibility for faculty budgetary appointments transferred from Forestry” and appointing a Forestry Program Director.

Criticism of consultation process

Following consultations beginning in March 2017, the proposal was formalized and released for consultation among faculty and staff in December. It was open for the minimum requirement of 120 days before it could go through governance.

While the report notes that “Forestry faculty members unanimously supported moving forward with a restructuring process,” Tratnik told the committee that this was misleading. She alleged that “three of the seven faculty members that did not agree were moved to other departments, and [that] the proposal wasn’t voted on by the Forestry Faculty Council.”

In response to a question about this issue from a PBC member, Regehr said that U of T’s faculty restructuring policy does not require it to obtain approval from affected faculty councils.

Tratnik said that U of T failed to incorporate the FGSA’s suggestion of making Forestry a high-level Extra-Departmental Unit under Daniels, which would grant it more administrative power to “keep Forestry’s interests intact.”

She added that U of T failed to explicitly communicate its intentions of establishing an urban forestry undergraduate program, and to clarify the status of cross-divisional teaching of current Forestry programs.

The PBC lost its quorum toward the end of the meeting, meaning that it could not approve its April 3 meeting report. Approval of the report has been moved to the first meeting of next academic year in September. Quorum is nine voting members — or one-third of its total voting members.

On May 30, the Academic Board voted to recommend the proposal, with 43 votes in favour, three votes against, and two abstentions.

Editor’s Note (June 7, 11:00 am): This article has been updated to include details from the Academic Board vote.

University creating advisory group to find “alternative sources of funding”

Admin motivated by decline in provincial public funding, low student funding

University creating advisory group to find “alternative sources of funding”

The university is looking for faculty, staff, students, alumni, and governors who have expertise in generating funding as provincial public funding declines on an annual basis. U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr sent a memo calling for nominations for an advisory group to find alternative sources of funding.

“Ontario universities, as we said in the memo, are facing increased financial pressure,” said Regehr. The provincial grant, which comprises 27 per cent of U of T’s current operating budget, decreases by about 1.5 per cent per year. “On top of that, we have among the lowest student funding in the country and our tuitions are regulated, so in order to continue the great world-class research and teaching that we do, we need to think of new ways to support it,” said Regehr.

The initiative raises questions about how the university will go about finding alternative sources of funding, and what moral and legal obligations they will abide by. There is precedence for Canadian universities being swayed to make decisions based on third-party interest from donors. In 2010, Carleton University accepted a $15 million donation from Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell, which allowed the Riddell Foundation to appoint three of five people on a steering committee, ultimately influencing the curriculum in their school of political management. In 2012, an agreement between York University and the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, which would have funded study in international law, fell through due to faculty opposition.

The university is still looking for nominations for positions on the advisory board. They will be bringing in experts from different fields to discuss and analyze different types of feasible sources of funding. The assessors are looking for nominees with expertise on how funds are generated in a wide variety of sectors.

The advisory group supposedly has one year to fulfil its mandate, which includes coming up with a set of principles aligned with the university’s values, examining a wide set of options for alternative funding, and recommending a set of options for diversifying funding sources.

The advisory group will be discussed by Regehr, Senior Strategist Sally Garner, and U of T President Meric Gertler. They will form a representative group to decide which of the nominees will be on the advisory group.

“The committee hasn’t been struck yet, so I can’t say what they’re going to look at,” continued Regehr. “My colleague Sally [Garner] will be sitting on the committee as a senior assessor assisting the committee, and they’ll look at a broad range, but I wouldn’t want to say what it’s going to be. That’s why we’re bringing in experts so they can think outside the box, in ways that we haven’t yet.”

Nominations can be submitted by email to provost@utoronto.ca before Friday, December 8.

Report on potential restructuring of Faculty of Forestry released

Document details student, staff feedback as second round of consultations open

Report on potential restructuring of Faculty of Forestry released

The second round of consultations related to the potential restructuring of the Faculty of Forestry began on October 5, when Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr published a report summarizing the results of the first round and opened the floor to comment on the report.

Concerns and suspicions remain among students, alumni, and administration from both the faculty and the broader university administration. In the first round of consultations, they were given the option to submit online written opinions, as well as meet with members of the administration to express their views on the issue.

Initial consultations on the future of the Faculty of Forestry ran from May 12 to July 4 after Regehr published a memo explaining the consultations in March.

Regehr’s report

The discussion paper is broken down into two sections: a summary of the feedback received and a range of questions and answers from during the discussions.

The Office of the Vice-President and Provost received 99 online submissions. Professor Elizabeth Smyth, Vice Dean, Programs of the School of Graduate Studies and Chair of this first phase of consultations, met with 79 various faculty members, students, staff, and alumni in 13 in-person consultation sessions.

A large variation of groups met with Smyth, including representatives of the School of the Environment and representatives from the Dean’s offices of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as UTM and UTSC.

Potential restructuring suggestions ranged from expanding the current faculty to closing the faculty altogether and transferring the programs into cognate units. Feedback from the online submissions as well as the face-to-face meetings stressed the importance of the Faculty of Forestry and listed its contributions to the overall field of forestry. In addition, both feedback outlets produced varying statements of concern over Forestry keeping its faculty status.

With the faculty and the administration having a history of discussing potential restructuring, the report mentions that “having been cast as ‘trouble makers’” in past discussions, the alumni are concerned with the fairness of the current process.

Stakeholders respond

Forestry Matters, an online group led by students Theresa Richlin, Annonciade Murat, and Basil Southey submitted a petition related to the consultations with 886 signatures at the time of submission on July 2. The introduction of the petition reads, “The Faculty of Forestry is at risk from inappropriate academic restructuring that could further restrict programs and operations and threaten the future of forestry education at the University of Toronto.”

Questions such as “How can consultations take place over the summer if some students are away?” and “How could the consultation take place without a Dean at the Faculty of Forestry?” were asked during the consultations and reflect the concerns expressed in this petition.

Current Dean Robert Wright took office immediately following Dean Mohini Sain leaving the post. Wright expressed his admiration of how openly the consultation process was carried out and stressed the importance of restructuring in order to “stay at the cutting edge” of forestry science. However, other groups involved did not share his optimism.

Marcin Lewandowski, Chair of the Faculty of Forestry Alumni Association, while impressed with how well the consultation paper balanced the opposing opinions on the issue, said that he took issue with the language used in the discussion. The language “insinuated that there’s a problem with the Faculty of Forestry, and to us, at least, it is an attempt to create a problem as opposed to a problem that exists.”

However, Lewandowski concedes that as long as the administration continues to recognize the importance of forestry science and ensures that there is a teaching staff to properly teach the curriculum, the alumni will be satisfied.

Southey, President of the University of Toronto’s Foresters’ Club, expressed disappointment, feeling as though undergraduate students have been overlooked. The consultations were completed during the summer, while many students were away working. Southey mentioned in an email to The Varsity that undergraduate students “had to struggle to be involved in the conversation,” claiming that the administration “made no effort to include undergraduate perspectives.” However, Southey still expresses hope that the administration will work to strengthen the faculty by increasing the resources available to the faculty.

The next step in the process is collecting and reviewing responses and comments to the report. Following the high volume of participation in early stages of the process, Regehr expressed her optimism on the outcomes of the discussions.

Regehr welcomes any comments or feedback on the discussion paper. “Everybody who wanted to voice an opinion and engage had an opportunity in the first stage,” she said. “They have an opportunity again now in the second stage.”