Ryerson Students’ Union condemns U of T’s proposed mandatory leave of absence policy

VP Equity calls policy “shameful”

Ryerson Students’ Union condemns U of T’s proposed mandatory leave of absence policy

The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has passed a motion to co-sign a letter condemning U of T’s proposed university-mandated leave of absence policy. The policy has already stirred up controversy at U of T.

Hollie Olenik, an RSU board member from the Faculty of Communications and Design, introduced the motion at the November 23 Board of Directors meeting.

The proposed leave policy, in its current format, would allow the university to put students whose mental health issues pose a physical threat to themselves or others, or impact their academics negatively, on a non-punitive yet mandatory leave of absence. The proposed policy is distinct from regular mandatory leaves. Students in this situation would currently be placed on leave in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct.

At the meeting, Olenik called the policy “damaging,” adding, “I would not be this riled up about it if it wasn’t this important.”

The RSU’s co-signer of the letter is RyeACCESS, the university’s centre for disabilities.

“The employees [at RyeACCESS] wrote a letter of solidarity and support for Students for Barrier Free Access and asked if I would help get the support of the RSU,” said Olenik. “I thought that the policy was an important one to speak out against and brought the motion forward.”

Regarding why the RSU board condemned an action at another university, Olenik said, “I think it’s important as a board member to advocate for all students, regardless of which institution they attend. A policy [like this] as always has the potential to be adopted by the Ryerson administration.”

Ryerson University does not currently have a mandatory leave of absence policy. Lauren Clegg, Media Relations Officer at Ryerson, declined to comment on the RSU’s motion or U of T’s leave policy.

Susanne Nyaga, President of the RSU, wrote to The Varsity, “Historically we have seen one University adopt a policy and similar policies pop up on other campuses. This policy does more harm than benefit to students who are facing mental health issues and if this were adopted at Ryerson the impact would be devastating.”

Nyaga said that although the RSU primarily represents Ryerson students, “it is not odd for us to stand in solidarity with students, especially marginalized students.”

Camryn Harlick, Vice-President Equity of the RSU, decried the policy as “shameful,” adding that “this policy is extremely ableist and as a mad identifying student [it] is scary to think that an institution could decide whether or not I am capable of staying in classes.”

Mathias Memmel, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), said, “What the RSU does and doesn’t do has no bearing on the UTSU’s position. We remain opposed to the policy without the amendments we’ve proposed.”

Governing Council delays mandatory leave of absence policy vote for two months

Move comes amidst community concern over policy regarding students with mental health issues

Governing Council delays mandatory leave of absence policy vote for two months

The University of Toronto’s Governing Council is delaying a vote on a policy that would allow the university to put students whose mental health issues posed a physical threat to themselves or others, or impacted their academics negatively, on a non-punitive yet mandatory leave of absence. Slated to be voted on this year, the vote will be shifted to the next cycle for the meeting of the Academic Board and University Affairs Board, on January 25 and January 30 of 2018, respectively.

The proposed policy is distinct from regular mandatory leaves. Students in this situation would currently be placed on leave in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct.

On November 16, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) announced that it had secured an agreement with Governing Council to postpone the vote on the new policy for two months to allow for more consultation and feedback from the community. The University Affairs Board and Academic Board were initially supposed to conduct their votes to recommend it to Governing Council the week of November 20.

“We proposed changes and made it clear that we wouldn’t support the policy until those changes had been made,” said Mathias Memmel, UTSU President. “The administration decided to postpone the vote rather than proceed without student support.”

Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations for U of T, said in an email to The Varsity that the university has been receiving feedback from students, staff, and faculty since the spring. “We want to get this right, and so in light of the excellent comments we’ve received recently the Vice-Provost, Students is reviewing the draft policy with this constructive feedback in mind,” she said.

Students have criticized the policy for, among other things, a lack of clarity on how it will impact students in precarious enrolment situations, like students receiving financial aid contingent on enrolment and international students with enrolment-dependent visas. In an earlier interview with The Varsity, Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh said that everything would happen on a case-by-case basis, and that the university would take into consideration the financial aid or immigration status of the student when making its decision.

University community speaks out against aspects of policy

Campus groups have since solicited feedback from students across the university. Former UTSU Vice-President External Lucinda Qu, University College Director Aidan Swirsky, and UTSU General Equity Director Adrian Huntelar organized a community consultation on November 14. In an email to The Varsity, they wrote that “it was problematic that admin had assumed that consultations with a limited number of large-scale student organizations were adequate substitutes for public consultations; this was especially noteworthy given how the consultations they hosted regarding the sexual violence policy last year were widely criticized but at least were held.”

Memmel said that the UTSU’s position on the policy hasn’t changed, and that the union views the policy as a positive development from the current punitive nature of a leave of absence. One issue that Memmel cited was the broad language of the policy. This is especially a concern in situations where students are unable to engage in academic pursuits, said Memmel. “Another concern is that a student could theoretically be placed on leave without the involvement of a medical professional. These are medical decisions, and they should only be made on the basis of medical evidence provided by a medical professional.”

The St. George Round Table (SGRT), an association of the student heads of colleges and undergraduate faculties, has also been seeking input from students via a Google form circulating on social media. Nish Chankar, Chair of the SGRT, said that the form “is an attempt to streamline and further legitimize the very important questions that students have surrounding the policy, and the feedback/suggestions many of them have so far been willing to share.”

In addition, a petition is circulating at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that stands in strong opposition to the policy. The petition expresses objection to “the targeting of students seen as having ‘serious mental health issues’” and to the “introduction of ‘mandatory leave.’”

Citing an article posted on an advocacy website for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the petition’s organizers contended that the policy is “shameful” and that “regardless of the benign sounding words that are used and regardless of intention… this policy will make studying harder for students.” They argued that the policy “wrongfully takes ‘agency and control’ away” from vulnerable students and “essentially removes students… for inconveniencing classmates and peers, and the university administration.”

Breaking down the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy

The proposed policy gives sweeping powers to university administration with few accountability mechanisms and little student input

Breaking down the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy

It’s time to talk about the new University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy. The policy, which originated as a response to the Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–15, gives U of T administrators unprecedented power to unilaterally place students with mental health issues on an involuntary leave of absence. This power can be invoked in virtually any situation where a student is struggling, academically or personally, and by Divisional Heads, registrars, and other administrative staff without the consent of the student and, in many cases, without their input.

This policy has drawn the ire of students, mental health awareness groups, and campus organizers, and these are only some of the many concerns expressed by students in the past few weeks.

The Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–15 highlighted the problematic use of the Code of Student Conduct, a punitive policy, to address scenarios in which students suffering from mental wellness issues were causing direct harm to themselves or others. The report recommended the creation of a separate policy to address these situations without officially suspending students under the code.

There is an inherent tension between the principles that inform this policy. The Ombudsperson’s report highlights that “the right to personal autonomy, self-determination and dignity is as significant for people with mental health disabilities as for others, and must be respected.” At the same time, the Ombudsperson affirms the right of the university under Bill 168 to “protect the safety of its staff and students by excluding a person from campus.” These are necessarily exclusionary practices: the university treads on the right to personal autonomy and self-determination each time they remove a student against their will.

Furthermore, the current writing of the policy extends far beyond the extreme cases in which Bill 168 already permits the university to intervene.

Under the policy, there are two ‘scenarios’ in which a university-mandated leave of absence can be applied. Scenario one deals with students who pose “a risk of harm to self or others, including but not limited to a risk of imminent or serious physical or psychological harm.” Scenario two deals with students who are “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education at the University notwithstanding accommodations or supportive resources that may be available,” even if they are not at any risk of direct harm.

This second scenario is absolutely unnecessary. If this policy is meant to deal only with the most extreme cases, as recommended by the Ombudsperson’s report, then the first scenario already accomplishes that. The addition of the second scenario is either a case of reckless policy overreach or a deliberate attempt to place conditions on the autonomy of students.

There is genuine cause for concern about the second scenario. The phrase “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education at the University” could theoretically extend to virtually any student dealing with depression, anxiety, low motivation, or a handful of other symptoms of mental illness. There is no clarifying language present in the policy, which gives full discretion to administrative staff in how to interpret it. The second scenario provides the university with a unilateral mechanism for removing struggling students from their academic and social activities.

This approach could also lead to students’ aversion to engaging with deans, registrars, or mental wellness liaisons within college and divisions. The policy does not set any guidelines for when administrative personnel should inform the Division Head about a potential case. This leaves the student in flux. If a student is cognizant of the fact that their registrar or supportive staff may, immediately after hearing their concerns, forward them to a Divisional Head for the purposes of considering a leave of absence, they will be less likely to trust administrative personnel or to come to them with concerns about mental wellness.

While many will argue that in practice, administrative staff will not act in such reckless ways, the point is that nothing in the policy prevents them from doing so. This problem is magnified by the fact that there is no requirement that medical professionals be consulted anywhere in the process.

Instead, these major decisions are left in the hands of university administrators, with no requirement that they have even a baseline understanding of mental health issues. The policy allows the Vice-Provost Students to unilaterally appoint a Student Case Manager (SCM) or Student Support Team (SST) to assist with the process. Although these people may include “student service representatives, registrarial personnel, medical professionals, academic administrators, campus safety personnel, campus police or others,” they do not have to be medical professionals or even trained in handling sensitive situations related to mental health.

The student also has no say in determining who will be their SCM or SST. This means that, under the current policy, a group of unfamiliar, potentially non-experts have a large say about whether a vulnerable student gets to continue their education. Further, the policy permits the Vice-Provost Students to delegate the duties of overseeing the cases of students going through the procedure to “their delegate” without specifying who is qualified to serve as the delegate or how they can be held accountable.

Fortunately, the policy is not yet set in stone. Discussion is scheduled to take place at the University Affairs Board on November 20 and then at the Governing Council on December 14. Students can register to speak at these meetings. The St. George Round Table and the University of Toronto Students’ Union are also accepting feedback online or via email, which will be submitted to the Office of the Vice-Provost Students.

Additionally, a grassroots movement has developed in the form of a Facebook group called the Mandatory Leave Policy Response Group, which is compiling a document where students can provide their own analysis line-by-line on the policy. That document will be shared with every member of the University Affairs Board and the Governing Council in advance of their debates on the issue. This group is also planning a series of broad public consultations where students can share their concerns with like-minded peers and organize collective responses.

Students can, and should, voice any concerns about the policy in these venues, as well as directly to registrars’ and deans’ offices. Only by consistently providing the students’ perspective on this policy, in as many forums as possible, can we make it work for students.

Adrian Huntelar is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies and Political Science. He is a member of the University of Toronto Students’ Union Board of Directors.