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.

Business Board approves widespread tuition fee increases for all students

Domestic ArtSci, Architecture, Music, KPE tuition to increase three per cent, Engineering five per cent

Business Board approves widespread tuition fee increases for all students

Tuition fees are expected to increase again this year after the Business Board of the university’s Governing Council approved the increases at a meeting on March 21.

The tuition increases were first outlined in the university’s proposed budget for the 2018–2019 academic year, which outlines a for-credit tuition fee revenue of $148 million to fund initiatives and capital projects across the three campuses.

What are the tuition increases?

Domestic undergraduate tuition fees for the Faculty of Arts & Science; the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design; the Faculty of Music; and the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education are expected to increase by three per cent in the 2018–2019 academic year.

Tuition fees for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering is expected to increase by five per cent, with tuition to be $15,760.

Tuition for international students in the Faculty of Arts & Science is expected to rise by no more than nine per cent in the 2019–2020 academic year, while international students in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering will see an increase of eight per cent to their tuition over the same period. According to the budget, “international fees are set at a level to more closely reflect the true cost of educating students.”

Tuition fees for most professional programs will increase by 2.5 per cent to five per cent under the provincial tuition framework.

Tuition fees for international graduate students will be the same as their domestic counterparts in Fall 2018, as per a university decision in mid-January.

As a result of tuition increases, an increase in student financial aid is also expected.

The proposed budget for 2018–2019 puts $224 million towards student aid for the year. In a 2016–2017 report on student financial support, the university committed itself to providing increased aid not only for undergraduate domestic students but also international students.

Why does tuition keep rising?

The overall increase in tuition is meant to address higher enrolment and increased costs, according to Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr. The costs also come in response to the tuition framework mandated by the Ontario government.

“The three per cent overall increase is the tuition framework from the provincial government and the issue is costs… continue to rise as they do everywhere,” said Regehr, noting that the government grant per student “has not increased for many years now.”

Mathias Memmel, the President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said that the union was “disappointed, although not surprised, that the university is increasing fees by as much as it possibly can.”

Memmel, like Regehr, pointed to issues in government funding.

“The provincial government needs to step up and make a serious commitment to public education,” said Memmel. “Otherwise, our public universities will cease to be truly public and will become private institutions with public funding.”

Despite the fee increases, the university reaffirmed its commitment to aiding students in positions of financial need.

“We have always had the longstanding commitment that any qualified student who is admitted to the University of Toronto will be able to not have financial barriers that stop them from completing their education,” said Regehr.

The commitments are outlined in the university’s Policy on Student Financial Support.

U of T proposed budget increases financial aid spending, capital projects on all three campuses

$2.676 billion in budgeted operating revenue is expected, an 8.2 per cent increase from last year

U of T proposed budget increases financial aid spending, capital projects on all three campuses

The University of Toronto released their proposed budget for the upcoming 2018–2019 fiscal year, which featured increased funding in financial aid, research opportunities, and graduate programs. The budget reports a total budgeted operating revenue of $2.676 billion, 8.2 per cent higher than the 2017–2018 budget.

Expenses in the proposed budget include large-scale building projects on all three campuses, including an increase in spending toward the total deferred maintenance liability, an increase in student aid, and grants and diversity initiatives.

$224 million is budgeted toward student aid for the 2018–2019 fiscal year. This figure is expected to grow to $260 million over five years. The increase in spending on financial aid can be attributed to the university’s policy on student financial support. The statement principle outlines that, “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means”.

The proposed budget also aims to fund diversity and equity initiatives. A total of $3 million over a course of three years will be allocated to coordinate access programs for students from underrepresented groups on campus. Similarly, $3 million over a course of three years will be set aside to fund postdoctoral fellowships for individuals from underrepresented groups. In turn, this will diversify the amount of minority scholars across the country.

Deferred maintenance has been a critical issue, costing the university $549 million in liabilities this year. Of that $549 million cost, UTSG accounts for $478 million with an increase of $4 million compared to last year. UTSC and UTM campuses saw decreases of $2 million and $4 million, respectively. $18 million has been allotted for deferred maintenance repairs, specifically at the St. George campus, while $2.5 million are set aside for the UTM and UTSC campus in their respective budgets.

OSAP                                                                                                          

Changes in the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) were also included in the report. The program was changed to include free tuition for students from low and middle-income families, 30 per cent off tuition grants, and opportunity-based grants for students to reduce loan debt. 55 per cent of U of T students receive OSAP payments.

Funding for the University of Toronto Advanced Planning for Students program (UTAPS) is also projected to increase by an additional $13 million over the planning period. UTAPS gives grants to OSAP eligible students based on financial need.

Revenues

Much of the university’s operating revenue is obtained through provincial operating grants, tuition, and various student fees. Tuition and grant revenue for 2018–2019 is projected to be $2.336 billion, a 2.5 per cent increase compared to the $2.279 billion projected last year. Similarly, large endowments from the university’s greater community have also contributed over $2.38 billion to the operating revenue.

This year, a maximum three per cent increase will be added to tuition for Arts & Science students. Tuition fees for graduate and professional program students may also be increased by a maximum of five per cent. The university has also proposed to align tuition fees for international PhD students with the domestic rate.

The university recently signed a new Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA2) with the province of Ontario. The agreement aims to re-establish the university’s leadership role in research and innovation in Ontario. SMA2 aims to include funding for 631 new master’s student spaces and 198 new doctoral student spaces by fall 2019.

Governing Council will vote on the $2.68 billion proposed operating budget for the 2018–2019 fiscal year on April 5

Improving Governing Council’s communication skills

Increased engagement on social media could bring the council closer to the community that it governs

Improving Governing Council’s communication skills

Staying peacefully ignorant of university affairs became increasingly difficult this winter, as Governing Council candidates’ ads popped up on my social media feeds at least five times a day. These friendly, professional ads piqued my interest, and so I became familiar with the candidates running for the vague position of representatives on ‘Governing Council.’ A quick Google search and a few casual conversations later, I realized that neither the internet nor my peers were able to tell me what role the Governing Council played in campus affairs and student life or how each candidate hoped to fulfill their positions.

Established by the University of Toronto Act of 1971, Governing Council has ultimate authority over the university’s operations. This body has the power to appoint the President, establish programs of study, and fix salary amounts for university staff, among other responsibilities. Eight students sit on this council of 50 for the purpose of overseeing “the academic, business and student affairs of the University,” meaning they are instrumental in managing and overseeing the university’s day-to-day and long-term decision-making.

This information about Governing Council, as it turns out, is readily available, but it is packaged in unfriendly PDFs and a web of hyperlinks. For the average student, it might be easier to shrug off Governing Council as another vague, bureaucratic body at the university. However, the decisions of the council should not be taken lightly. Featuring members appointed by the President and the Lieutenant Governor in Council, this body governs student and faculty affairs that can affect the university’s structure, including withdrawing the proposed mandatory leave of absence policy and potentially approving a new Bachelor of Information program.

The eight elected student representatives require the input, support, and criticism of their constituents to better provide the council with a meaningful student voice. While it is the responsibility of individual students to stay informed, it is likewise the responsibility of Governing Council to provide access to the students that it is governing, especially concerning policy deliberations and general meetings. It is especially important to highlight this need for transparency given Governing Council’s position within our university.

Despite its impressive role within our university, Governing Council does not effectively attract students through social media platforms that are frequently relied upon for scheduling and networking. Facebook event notifications have become instrumental in encouraging community engagement for many student groups and professional events. While opportunities to get involved might be there, they are hard to find, and they could be more welcoming. Though it is encouraging that reports and meeting minutes are made publicly available, these documents are not always the most engaging way to communicate important messages.

The pervasive reliance on social media platforms in the recent elections reveals that students prefer these more accessible mediums. It would be an asset to both the student body and the council itself to increase engagement through social media.

Student groups are becoming increasingly dependent on online sources to connect and attract members across a variety of platforms. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), for example, is highly active on social media, using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep its constituents aware of changes to its benefits, advocacy efforts, and community events. Regardless of your feelings towards the UTSU, it should be noted that it effectively uses social media to keep itself accountable to students in a direct and accessible way. This transparency is commendable and should be looked upon as a model for effectively informing constituents using contemporary technological methods.

Governing Council, a body that holds even more power over students — and certainly more authority over the university — ought to engage its students, faculty, and community in a similar manner. The benefits of doing so are numerous. Keeping up to date with Governing Council provides students with opportunities to become involved with subcommittees or to apply to be a co-opted member. The council meets fairly frequently and updates its online files every Friday. There are plenty of opportunities for students to get involved and most meetings are held in open session — the council just needs to make sure students know about them first.

Looking back at this year’s debate over the proposed mandatory leave of absence policy reveals just how important communication between the council and the student body can be. Intervention from the Ontario Human Rights Commission was necessary to solidify concerns already vocalized by organizations like the Arts and Science Students’ Union and the UTSU — both student groups that directly engage with constituents in person and on social media. In contrast, the majority of the university’s communications were in the form of formal announcements, speeches during Governing Council meetings, and interviews with news outlets like The Varsity. While the outpouring of criticism makes it evident that students do respond to these methods of communication, the painfully long process leading up to this decision brings into question why it took so long for the council and advisors to listen to the university community’s overwhelmingly negative response.

A board dedicated to the well-being of its students should be in tune with their needs. Opening up new lines of communication would better support Governing Council as a body willing to engage and construct policies that directly concern and support the needs of students.

Confidence in Governing Council’s ability to effect positive change to university affairs and student life is absolutely paramount to maintaining trust in the council and preserving relative stability in academic life. Rather than waiting until problems arise, it would be advantageous for Governing Council to take control of its public image by presenting information in a clear and direct way through its social media platforms, leaving no room for confusion or misinformation. In a time where it is quick and easy to disseminate information over online platforms, failing to do so in an active and explicit way is inexcusable, particularly for organizations that have a profound impact on university affairs.

Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Anthropology and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.