Governing Council addresses allegations of bullying, harassment in one academic unit

October meeting included report from President Gertler on municipal elections, free speech, smoking policy

Governing Council addresses allegations of bullying, harassment in one academic unit

U of T administration has opened an investigation into several allegations of bullying, harassment, and academic and professional misconduct at the university, which were brought to the attention of the Office of the Ombudsperson by current and former students.

At the Governing Council meeting on October 25, which was the first full meeting this year after the September date was interrupted by a protester, Ombudsperson Ellen Hodnett said that multiple people had contacted her over the previous year about “very serious systemic issues” occurring within a single academic unit.

According to her report, several of the allegations also concerned external institutions that partner with the university.

“After I brought the issues to the attention of senior administration, an internal investigation was launched by the Provost’s office,” Hodnett wrote. “I periodically requested and received progress updates. As of this writing, the issues remain unresolved.”

When reached by The Varsity, U of T declined to provide further details. “We can’t provide details at this time as the matter is under investigation,” a spokesperson said, “We are conducting a thorough investigation and we are waiting for the results of that work.”

An “academic unit” can mean virtually anything at U of T, ranging from the three campuses, to various faculties, departments, or colleges.

The ombudsperson also noted that despite having an established process to deal with complaints about university staff, U of T does not have a process for faculty-student relations, adding that students who make allegations against a specific professor “may be left under the supervision of the professors, while an investigation (which can take many months) is undertaken.”

She also wrote, “I recommend that the University implement measures to protect the students from real or perceived threats while the investigation is underway,” noting that these measures are important given the power imbalance between faculty and students, as well as the negative psychological impact of bullying.

Hodnett also noted that although she understands an investigation — and particularly finding an investigator — can take time, the allegations are serious enough in nature to warrant a more expedient process.

“I am concerned about the need for complaints of this nature to be responded to in an expeditious fashion, given the impact on all parties, and students in particular,” she said. “There may be ways to make the process more efficient.”

Report from the president

U of T President Meric Gertler also presented his report at the meeting, noting the results of the recent municipal elections in which many of the winners are U of T alumni, including environmental geoscientist Jennifer McKelvie, who defeated incumbent Councillor Neethan Shan in Ward 25 Scarborough—Rouge Park.

He also mentioned that U of T continued to be placed highly on international university rankings.

In addition, Gertler brought up the Ford government’s requirement that every postsecondary institution in Ontario develop a free speech policy.

The president said that the university’s existing policy, effective since 1992, already meets all of the requirements. He noted, however, that there are new “wrinkles,” including the requirement to report annually on their progress to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

The administration also spoke about the new campus smoking policy. Scott Mabury, U of T’s Vice-President University Operations, said that the university is developing a new policy that would make all campuses smoke-free, with a target of January 1 for full implementation.

How to report workplace harassment if you’re a U of T student

Examining how workplace harassment, sexual harassment are handled by the university

How to report workplace harassment if you’re a  U of T student

Students who work for the university are not immune to workplace harassment. To combat the problem, Governing Council’s Policy with Respect to Workplace Harassment provides guidelines on how students can file complaints in the event that they experience harassment at work.

The policy provides student and faculty employees of the university with three options for filing complaints: victims can either contact their human resources office, their union, or their supervisor. If the grievance is against the supervisor, the complainant can go to a senior-level department member. The policy also instructs victims to contact the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre.

Elizabeth Church, a U of T spokesperson, said that it is “hard to generalize [the complaint process] because it depends on the nature of the case, so the next steps and consequences would be decided based on the general nature of the case.”

Church explained that apart from contacting one’s supervisor, the university has “13 divisional human resource offices, that all employees… including student employees, have access to. They can contact those offices if they have concerns, or to get information, or to access support.”

Church added, “In most cases, student employees are also covered by one or more collective agreements, [which] have provisions with respect to workplace harassment and complaints.” Students also have the ability to contact the Equity Office to learn more about the ways that they can deal with issues of harassment relating to discrimination.

In January 2017, U of T also implemented the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, which applies to all members of the U of T community.

Individuals can report incidents of sexual harassment to their campus’ Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre.

The policy gives the university the jurisdiction to commence an official investigation into the incident. A complainant may request no investigation, but the university may choose to proceed with one anyway, in accordance with its responsibility to the safety of the community.

Investigations will allow both the complainant and respondent to submit statements detailing the alleged assault, although the complainant can choose not to participate. Complainants will also have the option of being referred to support services and receiving academic accommodations.

However, reporting incidents relies on the victim, as the policy explains that simply disclosing information about a sexual assault to a member of staff does not constitute reporting.

All incidents must be brought to the support centre if the complainant wishes to move forward.

This policy allowed U of T to meet the requirements of Bill 132, which was put forth by the government of Ontario in 2016 and addresses sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and on university campuses.

Bill 132 states that universities must have sexual assault policies that explain how they will respond to complaints.

In her 2015 action plan, former premier Kathleen Wynne addressed the power dynamics and deep-rooted misogyny embedded within sexual violence. She called on the importance of improving the safety of postsecondary campuses, saying that “assault and harassment are too prevalent and often go unreported and unchecked.”

The imbalance of power is especially important in the context of students employed in university positions, where they often work alongside individuals of higher standing. Statistics Canada reported that sexual assault was the least reported violent crime in the country in 2014, in part, because victims were worried about the perception of sexual assault as unimportant.

Acknowledging the imbalances of power between students and their employer may help dispel students’ fear that reporting could cost them their position or reputation.

Business Board releases reports on investments, endowment, capital projects

Investment returns fall short of targets, endowment increases $124 million from last year

Business Board releases reports on investments, endowment, capital projects

The Business Board of U of T’s Governing Council held its first meeting of the 2018–2019 academic year on October 9. Among the 18 items discussed at Simcoe Hall were a semi-annual update on investment performance, the annual endowment financial report for the previous academic year, and the status of capital projects costing over $2 million.

Comprised of 41 members, the Business Board is responsible for monitoring the cost-effectiveness of the university’s investments and for approving its business policies.

Semi-annual report on investment performance

The semi-annual report on investment performance was presented by Darren Smith, the President and Chief Investment Officer of the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM). UTAM is responsible for managing the university’s pension funds, endowment pool, and Expendable Funds Investment Pool (EFIP). The assets in these profiles total just under $10 billion.

All three portfolios’ actual returns have underperformed against the university’s targets since the start of 2018. The actual returns for pension and endowment portfolios were 2.2 per cent each, against their 3.1 per cent targets. The actual return for the EFIP was 0.9 per cent against a 1.1 per cent target. Smith attributed this to “an unfavourable capital market environment.”

Over a one-year basis and a five-year basis, UTAM’s actual returns for all three portfolios have outperformed target returns.

Smith believes that in the next five to 10 years, outperforming targets will be more challenging. “We’re very thoughtful about the current market environment,” he said. “Frankly, we’ve been surprised over the incredible run we’ve seen over the last couple of years. We keep expecting that markets will cool off, and that will happen at some point.”

Sheila Brown, U of T’s Chief Financial Officer and a UTAM board member, added, “It is our expectation that when the markets go down, we will go down with them.” She said that the Business Board should focus on UTAM’s long-term assets and positions when the markets go down. “[This is] an important lesson for us to keep in mind collectively as we go through what will inevitably be a downturn in the market that I think everyone is sitting waiting for.”

Annual endowment financial report

U of T currently has over 6,260 individual endowment funds totalling $2.5 billion market value, an increase of $124 million from the 2017 report. Of the $124 million increase, $39 million is from endowed donations, $14 million is from the university’s unrestricted funds, and $181 million is from investment income. There is a $25 million deduction for fees and expenses and an $85 million allocation for spending.

Each endowment has its own terms and conditions, which define the parameters of how the funds should be allocated and/or invested, as well as how the investment returns may be spent. For “the donated funds themselves and the funds that are designated as endowments, we cannot spend that original capital — we can only spend the investment return,” said Brown.

Scholarships constitute a large portion of the endowment funds, but in some cases, particularly due to tuition rates rising faster than the inflation rate, they may no longer able to provide adequate financial support. According to David Palmer, U of T’s Vice-President of Advancement, U of T’s “policies preserve purchasing power of endowments relative to the original gift, not to the purpose.”

Capital projects

There are currently 95 buildings across all three campuses under design and construction, totalling over $1.4 billion in costs. The 88 UTSG projects total $823,882,204; the four UTSC projects $279,563,702; and the three UTM projects $300,757,155.

Scott Mabury, U of T’s Vice-President of Operations, highlighted U of T’s commitment to increased energy efficiency. “We’ve made a pledge to be 37 per cent below our 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2030. When we did that, there was a thing called cap and trade in Ontario that said that was the law. It seemed like a safe commitment for the president to make. You understand how that has changed.”

Mabury said that seeking more energy efficient projects is “the right thing to do from a philosophical, from a practical, from an environment, and from an energy cost perspective… we don’t pay as much, so there’s an economic return.”

In camera items discussed include labour agreements between the university and both the Carpenters and Allied Workers, Local 27 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 353. Mabury also updated the board on a “forthcoming capital initiative at the Toronto Waterfront,” which may refer to the university’s partnership with MaRS to lease 24,000 square feet of the Waterfront Innovation Centre.

— With files from Matias Gutierrez

U of T approves contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy

Policy to be implemented effective immediately

U of T approves contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy

In a near-unanimous vote, Governing Council — U of T’s highest decision-making body — passed the contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy amid protests from students. It will be implemented effective immediately.

The motion passed with only three people voting against, out of more than 40 governors who were eligible to vote. Immediately after its passing, student protestors who had gathered outside began shouting their dissent.

The policy allows the university to place students on a nonpunitive, but mandatory, leave of absence from U of T if their mental health either poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.

For the latter, the policy states that “this scenario is not intended to apply to situations where a Student is academically unsuccessful,” but to instances when a student is unable “to fulfill the essential activities required to pursue their program.”

Professor Cheryl Regehr, U of T Vice-President and Provost, defended the updated policy and the consultation process, saying that she has spoken with “students who have wished there had been a policy like this in place for themselves, their friends, or their families.”

During the meeting there was also a motion to postpone discussion on the policy, to which Chair of Governing Council Claire Kennedy said that the university would drop the policy if the motion passed.

Regehr defended this decision, citing key philosophical divides and fundamental differences that “cannot be addressed through further revisions or consultations.” The motion failed with only four governors voting in favour.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a student governor on Governing Council and one of the three ‘no’’ votes, told The Varsity that “this ultimatum of ‘my way or the highway’ is disappointing and not conducive to productive dialogue between students and the administration.”

“I am especially troubled by the view propagated repeatedly by some members of the administration that the disagreements between students and the administration are irreconcilable and that further consultation would be pointless,” stated Harvey-Sanchez.

Before and during the meeting, around 50 students gathered outside Governing Council’s offices at Simcoe Hall to protest the policy, carrying signs that included criticisms of the limited consultation the university undertook.

Chants, such as “Whose campus? Our campus!” or “Hey hey, ho ho, MLAP has got to go!” were audible from within the Governing Council chamber throughout the meeting.

The demonstration drew students from all three U of T campuses, as well as others from Ryerson University and York University. Nour Alideeb, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–Ontario), was also in attendance.

Five representatives of student governments at U of T were given three minutes each to address the council: Ayaan Abdulle, Vice-President Academics and University Affairs of the SCSU; Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); Jamie Kearns, Vice-President External of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students; Andres Posada, Vice-President University Affairs of the U of T Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU); and Lynne Alexandrova, Internal Commissioner at the U of T Graduate Students’ Union.

All speakers from the five student unions shared their concerns and disapproval with the policy. Grondin alleged that the administration exhibited “tendencies to dismiss the voices of students” and portrayed protestors as “uneducated on the issues.”

Abdulle emphasized the SCSU’s concerns about cultural ignorance regarding the policy, saying that “Black and Indigenous students should be at the table.”  

U of T Ombudsperson and Professor Ellen Hodnett also spoke during the meeting: “In my view the proposed policy is long overdue.” The policy originated from her 2013–2014 report, recommending increased mental health services for students.

After the vote, Anne Boucher, President of the UTSU, said that although the UTSU had been opposed to the policy, they will “work with the university” to address student concerns.

“It is disappointing to see that consultations weren’t fully considered,” said Boucher. She considers the policy as “an improvement from what we have with the [Code of Student Conduct.]”

Prior to this policy’s passing, the U of T Code of Student Conduct already put students on a punitive leave from school if they broke the code. The mandated leave of absence policy will put students on a nonpunitive leave.

“It’s very frustrating, extremely upsetting, and I’m really, really angry right now,” said Felipe Nagata, President of the UTMSU. He added that he hopes to “fight for an updated policy that can actually protect students instead of a policy that just has vagueness and harms our autonomy.”

Speaking to The Varsity, Alideeb took issue with the consultation process, criticizing its lack of engagement with the student body and neglect of students’ schedules. She also added that CFS–Ontario would continue “supporting student groups on campus to continue this work on the ground.”

In a written statement to The Varsity, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, said that the university was aware that there are people who are “deeply opposed” to the policy and others, such as the ombudsperson, who are “strongly supportive of this approach, motivated by their overriding concern for the wellbeing of our students.”

“We will to continue to meet with students to talk about the policy, work together on this issue and make sure we can do everything we can to support students who are going through a serious health or mental health issue,” added Welsh.

According to the 2018–2019 operating budget, accessibility advisors “will provide services on location within academic divisions on the St. George campus.” The $1.5 million allocations make up approximately 0.06 per cent of the university’s $2.68 billion budget.

Op-ed: In support of the mandated leave of absence policy

The proposed policy is a significant improvement over the status quo under the Code of Student Conduct

Op-ed: In support of the mandated leave of absence policy

Over the past year, the University of Toronto’s proposed mandated leave of absence policy has been met with widespread student opposition. The proposed policy outlines a new process which would enable the university to remove students from their studies if, as a result of serious mental health issues, they pose a serious risk of harm to themselves or others, or are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education at the University.” It was originally proposed for approval in January, but was withdrawn at the request of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Now, an amended policy is back, and every representative student government has released a letter urging Governing Council and its committees to stop or delay its approval. Despite strong opposition from student politicians, the policy flew through its governance process with few opposing votes. In all likelihood, Governing Council will approve and implement the policy at its next meeting on June 27. And that is a step in the right direction.

To clarify a common misunderstanding, the ability for the university to remove students with serious and debilitating mental health issues from school is not new. It existed prior to this proposal, and will continue to exist even if the proposal is voted down.

Currently, the university uses the existing Code of Student Conduct — which is a disciplinary policy — to suspend students who, as a result of serious mental health issues, can no longer continue with their studies. The proposed policy doesn’t seek to give the university a new right to remove students from school; it seeks to redefine the scope and process of its existing ability to do so.

To get to the heart of the debate, we should ask ourselves whether students affected by mental illness are always and without exception able to make the decisions that are best for them — especially with regard to continuing their studies. This question is similar to one that medical professionals face regularly.

It is clear that so long as patients are competent and well-informed about their options, they should be able to make their own decisions regarding medical treatment, even if they make inadvisable decisions that have negative or fatal impacts on their own health.

However, as soon as a patient loses their ability to make decisions that are both competent and well-informed, there is an onus on the doctor to prescribe care even if it is against the wishes of the patient, while also working to return the patient to a state where they can make their own decisions. A patient should only be free to make bad decisions if they can reasonably be said to understand the consequences of those decisions.

The same principle applies to students. There are situations in which students suffering from severe mental health issues should be involuntarily removed from their studies. The threshold for this should be if one or both of two scenarios occur. The first is when a student, as a result of mental illness, presents a credible risk of harm to themselves or others. The second is when a student, as a result of mental illness, is not able to function academically.

Crucially, the second scenario entails academic non-performance, not merely academic underperformance. The overwhelming majority of students with mental health issues are at least somewhat able to function in school. They are functional enough to understand the consequences of their decisions, and so should be free to make bad ones, even if the result is academic failure. The second threshold, which aligns with the policy’s “Scenario 2,” applies only to the tiny handful of students who are no longer able to function academically at all.

The alternative to reasonable limits on autonomy is to insist that students always know what is best for them, no matter how ill they may be. Imagine a scenario in which a student with a severe mental health issue is failing all their courses, but is so ill that they genuinely do not believe themselves to be failing. The university can either temporarily remove this student from their studies or allow the student to fail out of school.

Respecting autonomy means respecting choices and the capacity to make choices. Can we really say that a student in that scenario chose to fail out? Did they understand what would follow from their decisions? The answer is clearly not. A blanket refusal to intervene does nothing to preserve student autonomy. Instead, it ensures the survival of the fittest.

The existing Code of Student Conduct was never designed to address concerns stemming from medical issues. The policy’s purpose is to set out a list of the rights and responsibilities of students and to protect community members who may have had those rights violated. Students found in violation of the Code of Student Conduct can receive sanctions under the code. These sanctions are all disciplinary, ranging from monetary fines to mandatory public service to suspension and expulsion.

Students facing discipline under the Code of Student Conduct are removed from the university community — with no access to university services — and end up with a disciplinary record. A suspension under the Code of Student Conduct can also endanger a student’s immigration status, as being put on a disciplinary leave can jeopardize a student visa. It can also mean losing access to funding from the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

Students in a severe mental health crisis shouldn’t receive disciplinary sanctions, but there are still situations under which they may have to be removed from their studies. Under the proposed policy, there is a process of support in place before and after a student is put on a leave. The process ensures that any sanctions are non-disciplinary, meaning they’ll have minimal harm to the student’s transcript and future academic prospects.

The university has three options for moving forward: it can allow for complete autonomy for individuals with mental health issues and never step forward to prevent harm; it can continue enforcing sanctions for ill students under the Code of Student Conduct; or it can approve and use the mandated leave of absence policy and have the tools it needs to help students. It is clear that approving the policy is the only viable option.

This isn’t to say the policy is perfect. The language of “Scenario 2” remains broader than necessary: the input of a medical professional should be mandatory, the appeals deadline should be longer, and the process for returning from a leave should be easier.

Still, the policy is a clear improvement over the status quo, and addresses many of the problems that exist under the Code of Student Conduct. An involuntary leave of absence will not come with a disciplinary record, and there will at least be the possibility of continued access to university services. These are welcome changes.

We have no reason to believe that the administration is keen to purge the university of students with mental health issues. We have no reason to believe that the new policy will be used on a scale larger than current practice.

Moreover, the University Affairs Board will review the policy as it is implemented. The policy will help students in ways that far outweigh the potential harms.

The longer we go without the proposed policy, the more students will face unfair sanctions under the existing policy. We cannot afford to give a dogmatic, poorly conceived interpretation of autonomy priority over the immediate well-being of students.

Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.

Daman Singh is a fifth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The mandated leave of absence policy will not improve our mental health

Lack of professional medical consultation, proposed isolation from campus life, and bureaucratic process render the proposed policy detrimental to students

The mandated leave of absence policy will not improve our mental health

Eleven Canadians commit suicide every single day. Of Canadians above the age of 15 who seek out mental health services, one third report that their needs are not met by the support provided to them.

U of T is currently developing a university-mandated leave of absence policy, which the university accredits as a mental health initiative. However, the current state of the policy remains inefficient and ambiguous, while overlooking the best interests of students struggling with mental health issues. If U of T moves forward with this policy, it should not claim that the policy is aiding mental health on campus.

The policy has received a lot of criticism, including a letter from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Even in its current revised state, the proposed policy does not mandate that a medical professional play an active role in this process.

Section I, subsection c of the proposed policy lays out the threshold for which the Division Head of the student’s faculty may invoke the leave upon a student. Research has shown that patients suffering with mental illnesses often require collaboration between psychologists, psychiatrists, and family physicians in order to sustain the highest standard of living with their condition. A Division Head alone cannot truly understand the complexity of any student’s mental health condition, but this policy could be invoked without the Division Head ever consulting a medical professional.

Under section IV, subsection g of the policy, not only can the administration repeal the student’s access to campus health and wellness resources, but they can also prohibit the student’s participation in campus life, including “co-curricular and student life activities.”

Psychiatrist Victor Schwartz of the New York University School of Medicine says that students who remain enrolled in their university show lower suicide rates when compared to those who unenrolled and, subsequently, faced a decrease in socialization. Similarly, psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University advises that helping at-risk-students involves connecting them to an appropriate treatment, rather than isolating them from campus life. U of T’s policy grants the university the power to prohibit students from receiving proper care.

Mental illnesses can fluctuate in severity and grow exponentially. This policy is a bureaucratic process burdened by a punitive tone, which will not help a student in a mental health crisis. The policy’s elaborate implementation will increase the student’s stress from having to fight for their right to remain on campus. This stress will come from an increase in meetings, appointments, and paperwork, when the student’s limited time and dwindling energy should be channeled into recovering or stabilizing.

Furthermore, implementing this policy might evoke fear in more students and hinder their desire to reach out for support. The policy’s reprimanding components only feed into stigmas surrounding mental illnesses. U of T can justly reprimand students for not achieving their academic standards, but it should not remove a student drowning in a mental illness because of the restrictions their condition imposes.

This policy mistakes mental exhaustion with mental illness, but the two are not synonymous. Mental exhaustion might be remedied with a break, but mental illnesses require a multitude of resources that U of T already offers to its students and faculty. The university should focus on allocating these resources more appropriately.

Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.

Katy Czajkowski is a fourth-year Book and Media Studies student at New College.

Mentally ill students should not be forced out of school

The proposed university-mandated leave of absence policy reflects disregard for student input, fairness, and mental health resources

Mentally ill students should not be forced out of school

On May 24, the University Affairs Board (UAB) demonstrated its neglect for student input, human rights, and improving resources and care for students with mental health issues. It voted in favour of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy, recommending it to Governing Council.

The UAB’s disregard for student input is evident, as the only three board members to vote against the policy were all students. Student unions came out in droves to condemn or criticize the policy before the vote: the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, the University College Literary & Athletic Society, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, and the Arts and Science Students’ Union, just to name a few.

Recent criticisms have stemmed from the manner in which the UAB went about the vote for this policy: providing little time for student input, ignoring the recommendations and requests of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and promising to alter the policy while making few changes to its practical effects. Those effects are the crux of the problem — the danger of the policy in and of itself.

Certainly, if a student wants to take a leave of absence for their mental health, they absolutely should be able to, and should receive support from the university. But that is not what we are talking about. Indeed, the policy itself clearly states: “This is not a Policy a student can choose to invoke. The application of the Policy is at the discretion of the University.”

To force students to take an absence is nothing short of discriminatory and punitive. It is difficult to imagine that a student with an observable or less-stigmatized physical illness would be forced to take leave without their consent.

Additionally, it is patently unfair for the university to force students with mental illness on leave without first offering them access to adequate treatment. The framework for support for students with mental illness on campus is totally lacking. Wait times for doctors, of which there are far too few, are ridiculously long.

Some anecdotal reports from students suggest that getting help at the Health & Wellness Centres require a student to essentially be in crisis. Rather than wait until the last second to help students, or force them to take leave, we should actually care for students with mental illness.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the proposed policy, if approved by Governing Council, will be nothing short of a total disaster for some of the university’s most vulnerable students. Yet, the UAB is so intent on pursuing it that it has actively ignored student voices and other concerned parties in order to recklessly push it through. We can only hope that Simcoe Hall decides to try to help keep students with mental illnesses in, instead of pushing them out.

Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.

Administration ignored human rights commission’s request to review mandatory leave policy, documents reveal

Student groups also kept in dark about OHRC involvement

Administration ignored human rights commission’s request to review mandatory leave policy, documents reveal

The U of T administration did not send a copy of the university-mandated leave of absence policy to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) before it was slated to be approved by the University Affairs Board (UAB) on January 30, despite the commission’s expressed interest in receiving a copy of the new draft.

Documents obtained by The Varsity, released through a freedom of information request, outline communications between university staff and lawyers at the OHRC about the policy as far back as December 6, 2017.

The university also did not inform the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) of the commission’s involvement despite explicitly informing the commission that it would inform student groups at the meeting.

The contentious policy would have allowed the university to place students on a mandatory leave of absence if their mental health issues negatively impacted their studies, or if they posed a dangerous risk to themselves or others. The policy received significant backlash from the community before it was eventually pulled from the governance cycle in late January.

Reema Khawja, OHRC Legal Counsel, reached out to Archana Sridhar, Assistant Provost at the Office of the Vice-President and Provost, in an email on December 13. “We encourage you to thoroughly consult and seek legal advice as you develop the next draft,” reads the email. “The OHRC will continue to monitor the developments, and we look forward to receiving a copy of the next draft of the policy before it enters the governance path for approval.”

However, the OHRC did not receive a copy of the draft until it was made public on the online agenda of the Academic Board of Governing Council before the board’s January 25 meeting.

In addition, the commission did not have any correspondence with U of T between Khawja’s email and January 29. It was, at that point, one day before the policy was set to go before the UAB, when OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane sent a letter to Claire Kennedy, Chair of Governing Council, recommending that the policy “not be approved in its current form” and requesting a delay on voting on the policy.

“I can tell you that the draft policy was made publicly available to everyone to review before it went through governance,” said Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of Media Relations at U of T. When pressed on whether a copy was sent explicitly to the commission, Church repeated the same response.

The UTSU was also unaware of the university administration’s communications with the human rights commission, despite Sridhar explicitly promising to inform student groups. In a December 15 email to Khawja, Sridhar wrote, “We appreciated your time for an informal meeting about the draft University-Mandated Leave Policy at the University of Toronto. It was helpful to hear your thoughtful feedback, and we will share that we have met informally with OHRC staff about the proposed policy when we meet with student groups in the weeks to come.”

However, students were not informed about the meeting. Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, said that the union “didn’t know that the OHRC was involved until the UAB meeting.”

Church said that in the consultations with student groups on campus, the university did not necessarily share whom they had spoken with in regard to the draft policy.

“We held many meetings with individuals, one-on-one meetings and also with groups to discuss the policy,” said Church. “In those meetings we discussed the feedback that we’ve received from internal and external consultations. In those conversations we did not necessarily identify the source of specific feedback.”

According to communications obtained by The Varsity, the university corresponded with the commission as early as December 6, when Anthony Gray, Director of Strategic Research at the Office of the President of U of T, connected Sridhar with Mandhane. In an email the same day, Mandhane requested that Sridhar meet with Khawja to hear the OHRC’s concerns about the policy. Sridhar and Khawja eventually met on December 13.

Initially slated to be voted upon late last semester, criticism from students and other members of the university community prompted U of T to delay the vote for two months. The policy was eventually withdrawn, with Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh announcing the university’s intention to rework it and reintroduce it at a later, unspecified date.

That date may be in the near future. At the March 6 UAB meeting, Welsh noted that the revised draft of the policy was in the final stage of internal review, and that the university administration would reintroduce it “shortly.” Welsh also mentioned U of T’s commitment to make the revised document available to the public prior to the governance process, and that it would notify the OHRC once it is posted online.