University Affairs Board recommends controversial mandated leave policy to Governing Council

Move comes amidst strong student opposition

University Affairs Board recommends controversial mandated leave policy to Governing Council

The University Affairs Board (UAB) voted near unanimously on May 24 to recommend the contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy to Governing Council, U of T’s highest decision-making body. The policy needs to go through two more rounds of recommendation votes before it is sent to Governing Council for final approval; if passed, it would be implemented effective immediately.

Only three board members, namely student members Zhenglin Liu, Julian Oliveira, and Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, opposed the policy. One person abstained from the vote, and the remaining UAB members voted in the affirmative.

U of T’s current version of the mandated leave policy, which is part of the Code of Student Conduct, puts students on a punitive leave from school. The revised policy in question proposes putting students on a non-punitive leave.

During the meeting, U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr spoke in support of the policy. She sought to ease student concerns by giving assurance that the policy would only apply to students exhibiting dangerous behaviour to themselves or others. Regehr also mentioned that student feedback from the numerous consultation processes helped to improve the policy.

Various student groups spoke out against the policy at the meeting, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). Joshua Grondin, the union’s Vice-President University Affairs, recommended a revised policy that would guarantee that students could get the resources they needed and allow others to help them with their mental illnesses.  He also spoke about his own personal experiences, claiming that the resources for mental health at U of T helped him get his academic life in order.

In an interview with The Varsity, Grondin said that the UTSU “definitely [wants] to work with the other [student] groups and see what their approach is” as the university goes forward with this policy.

“Ideally we can find something collaborative to let [the university] know that students still want changes and we want to consult more,” Grondin said. “We’ll also try to meet with members of the administration and let them know what the underlying concerns are.”

Other speakers brought up different concerns with the policy, including the intersections of race and mental health, the issues that international students may face, the limited consultations for revising the policy, and the future housing and employment implications for students.

During the discussion among board members, Liu presented a letter addressed to Regehr by Julie S. Wood, a woman who believes she lost her son because of U of T’s unwillingness to help struggling students. Her son, John David Wood, was heavily involved in Hart House Theatre. However, Wood stated that after being hospitalized for a “psychotic break” and suicide attempt, as well as for withdrawal symptoms from misprescribed medication, the theatre manager told her son not to return.

“This policy will stigmatize, isolate and damage vulnerable students. On the plus side it will reduce U. of T.’s burden of responsibility,” Wood wrote. “Making this policy official really won’t change anything, it will simply institutionalize the long-standing practice of shunning and excluding people who are experiencing difficulties that university personnel do not understand and don’t want to deal with.”    

In an interview with The Varsity, anti-policy organizer Aidan Swirsky said that he was “not surprised” that the policy passed. “The only way this policy can be challenged by students is [by] trying to force as much of their hand as possible.”

Read Wood’s full letter here:

View this document on Scribd

Editor’s Note (May 31): This article has been updated to clarify that the current version of the mandated leave of absence policy is a part of the Code of Student Conduct.

On eve of vote, student groups oppose revised mandatory leave of absence policy

Criticisms centre on timing of consultation period, availability of mental health resources

On eve of vote, student groups oppose revised mandatory leave of absence policy

Following the release of an updated draft of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, a number of U of T student groups have released statements of opposition to the policy. These student groups are also demanding that the University Affairs Board vote against the draft policy, that the university expand student consultation in the policy’s development, and that mental health resources for students are increased.

A previous draft of the policy, released on April 26, included provisions for a 20-day online consultation period that ended on May 16. Following the consultation period, the university released an updated version of the draft policy on May 17. This newest iteration is set to be voted upon by Governing Council’s University Affairs Board for recommendation on May 24. If approved, there would be two more rounds of votes for recommendation before being sent to Governing Council for final approval on June 27.

If implemented, the policy would allow U of T to place students on a non-punitive mandatory leave of absence if their mental health poses a physical risk to themselves or others or if it significantly impairs their studies.

Criticisms of online consultation

Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA), an organization that advocates for equity and the removal of barriers to accessing education, has been speaking against the proposed policy since it was introduced in late 2017.  

On May 8, SBA released a statement asking the university to extend the student consultation period until the end of October, as well as to add in-person consultations and in-depth information sessions for students.

The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) released a statement on May 15 supporting all of SBA’s demands. VUSAC described the online consultation process as too brief and burdened by technical difficulties, adding that the “timing is irresponsible at best and borders on acting in bad faith. There have been no in-person consultations made available to the public and alarmingly insufficient consultation of mentally ill, disabled, and/or mad-identified students.”

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), which represents over 12,000 UTSC students, also released a statement criticizing the online consultation process. The union has demanded that the university extend the consultation period to November “to ensure that the process and policy itself be inclusive, accessible, sufficient and reflective of students’ needs.”

A supplementary statement from some members of SCSU’s Board of Directors added that “there have been zero attempts to consult [UTSC] students, and the centralized nature of this policy, would require our students travel downtown for any accommodation, meeting, etc. This is our reading of the policy, but we are confident that our students will not be well-off because of this policy.”

The Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS), the New College Student Council (NCSC), the University College Literary & Athletic Society (UC Lit), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) have also criticized the 20-day consultation period for being inadequate.

In response to these concerns, Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh described student consultations as a “valuable” part of the policy’s development. Welsh credited the consultations with additions such as the requirement that the Vice-Provost Students “will consult with an appropriate regulated health professional” to determine whether to invoke the policy. Some student unions reference the lack of mandatory health professional consultation as being one of the shortfalls of the policy; this issue is addressed in the updated May 17 draft.

“In terms of where we are right now, we do feel that [student consultation] has been sufficient,” Welsh said. “There are some fundamental differences of opinion in terms of the views on the policy, and when the university should be stepping in and intervening, and so I think we feel that it’s time to bring the policy forward for the governors to consider.”

Calls for increases to mental health resources

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), which represents approximately 24,000 UTSG students, released a statement calling the April 26 draft “indicative of the university’s abhorrently stubborn response” to student concerns. In its statement, ASSU called for the U of T administration “to step down from their ivory towers” and provide “meaningful support for mental health and accessibility” at U of T. “We hope that when given this response, our administration will finally seek to provide us students with the appropriate mental health resources we have continuously demanded.”

The Environmental Students’ Union, Indigenous Studies Students’ Union, and Society of Undergraduate Drama Students, which are all course unions under ASSU, also released statements in support of ASSU’s position.

UC Lit denounced the policy in its entirety, saying that it is unjust based on the argument that the university does not currently provide enough mental health resources. “There is no justification for the Policy until the university is at least able to markedly expand its offered accommodations in a timely and effective manner, and until a new Policy can be lined up with such expansions,” reads part of the group’s statement.

SCSU adds that the “policy neglects to acknowledge how students will be affected outside of the parameters of their education” and that mental health resources would become inaccessible to students who may need them.

The UTSU also called for guaranteed “personalized access to essential services,” including residence, immigration advising, and Health and Wellness. In addition, the union also calls for “the policy to guarantee the student’s right to not only represent themselves, but to choose others to act on their behalf and alongside them.”

“These services are often essential for students to recover and become well, and continued access must be at the discretion of the student.”

Clarification on invocation and application

UC Lit described some of the policy’s conditions for invocation as vague and called for the inclusion of minimum thresholds for student accommodations, such as those affecting immigration, residence, and financial status. The NCSC and VUSAC both support UC Lit’s calls for these minimum thresholds.

The APUS said the threshold for the policy’s invocation is “broad and unclear,” adding that it fails to “properly account for the reality of the inaccessibility of accommodations and support services experienced by many students.”

Welsh stressed that the policy would only be invoked as a last resort. “[The policy] provides the ability to review the support for students, to consider a voluntary leave, and at the very last stage, and only once we’ve looked at the supports… would the university consider a mandated leave,” Welsh said. “We really want students to get better, return to their studies. Having a non-punitive option continues to be very important to us.”

Improvements to the Code of Student Conduct

If implemented, the leave of absence policy would replace the one in the current Code of Student Conduct, which allows the university to place students under a punitive leave of absence in identical circumstances. The proposed leave of absence policy, in contrast to the existing one, would be non-punitive.

“The University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy does not differentiate itself enough from the Code of Student Conduct to address the realities of mental health on campus,” reads the UC Lit statement. “The recognition of the need for reprieves and accommodations for students experiencing mental health difficulties does not line up with the end product.”

In its statement, the UTSU wrote that “Though an expansive policy is an improvement to our current procedure, the University of Toronto Students’ Union cannot support the Policy in its current state. We will not support the removal of students in most dire need without guaranteeing them the provision of ongoing resources.”

Welsh said that student comments and willingness to engage have been helpful in shaping the policy. “I think most importantly, though, this policy addresses a gap in our system that has been long-identified as something that the university needs,” Welsh said. “It will give the university some tools that are needed to support the very few students whose behaviour threatens the safety of our employees or the students, or makes it impossible for them to pursue the basic activity of their education due to their significant illness.”

U of T releases updated draft of mandatory leave of absence policy

Draft includes new definition of 'accommodation,' no changes to involvement of medical professionals in process

U of T releases updated draft of mandatory leave of absence policy

An updated draft of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy was released by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students on April 27. The new draft includes greater detail on accommodations for students placed on leave, as requested by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). As part of the release, the university is also soliciting online feedback from members of the U of T community.

In an April 27 memo, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, said that the university has been reviewing the proposed policy since the end of January. The memo states that the new draft “amplifies the intent and application of policy and is responsive to concerns raised.” Students have until May 16 to provide feedback via the student consultations website.

If approved by Governing Council, the policy would allow the university to place students on a non-punitive but mandatory leave of absence if their mental health either negatively impacts their studies or poses a dangerous, physical risk to themselves or others.

The proposed policy has attracted significant resistance since its introduction in October 2017. It was initially slated to be voted on by Governing Council at the end of 2017, but was delayed two months after backlash from students and student groups. The proposal also attracted the attention of the OHRC, which sent a letter to Governing Council on January 29 asking the university to delay the policy’s approval. The OHRC stated that the draft fell short of meeting the “duty to accommodate,” which is the responsibility to accommodate students’ mental health issues to the point of undue hardship.

Changes to the updated draft were designed to respond to the OHRC’s concerns. The proposed policy now includes a definition of ‘accommodation,’ which is “one or more accommodative measures (e.g. academic accommodations such as extra time to write an exam, physical accommodations to assist in the learning environment, etc.) provided pursuant to the Ontario Human Rights Code’s duty to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship.”

The updated policy also includes clauses describing how a student can participate in the process of determining accommodations, provisions for meeting with campus health resources prior to the policy being invoked, and how to provide accommodative measures once the student is approved to return to their studies.

In addition, the new draft further expounded on the “Threshold for Intervention,” renamed the “Threshold for Invoking the Policy.” A concern of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and other stakeholders was that the definition of a scenario in which a student’s mental health negatively affected their studies was too broad.

The draft now states that “this scenario is not intended to apply to situations where a Student is academically unsuccessful and the normal consequences of failing to meet academic standards should apply, but rather to situations involving serious behavioural problems that may be related to mental health or other similar issues, which result in the Student’s inability to fulfill the essential activities required to pursue their program.”

However, the policy leaves out a chief recommendation from members of the university community — that the process require the presence of a medical professional throughout. In his January 2018 executive report, then-UTSU President Mathias Memmel said that “mental health problems are medical problems, and medical decisions should be made by medical professionals.”

The draft policy is slated to be voted upon at the next University Affairs Board meeting on May 24. If the vote passes, it would be recommended to Governing Council for final approval.

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.