“Priority Investments”: the board meeting after Bahen

Students press the administration for better mental health resources and policy change

“Priority Investments”: the board meeting after Bahen

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

On March 17, another student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

We’ve lost at least three members of our student community to suicide this school year. Their stories are not mine to tell.

On March 18, I was one of five students allowed into U of T’s Business Board meeting. Students deserve to know what happened in that room. This is a story I can tell.

Like most students, I learned of the tragedy through Facebook on the night that it happened. I stayed awake refreshing my home page. By the next morning, students had created an event page called “Protest UofT’s Inaction.” Word spread quickly. Hundreds of us planned to unite in peaceful protest outside of President Meric Gertler’s office on King’s College Circle from 2:00 to 6:00 pm. When I arrived at Simcoe Hall, students were protesting outside, while Campus Police officers blocked access to the inside. Hearing that a meeting was taking place on Simcoe Hall’s second floor, four of us went to the back door of Convocation Hall to try the elevators. The elevator wouldn’t budge without a key.

I felt the sting of an obvious metaphor as I kept pressing the button. Only a select few have access to the top.

We gave up on the Simcoe sit-in and made our way to the Medical Sciences Building, where we heard the Business Board meeting would be moved. We got as close as we could to the office before Campus Police blocked off the next door. Students sat in the hall, maintaining a clear path to the door and any exit route. We’re not in the camp of blocking the way. Eventually, someone came from the meeting to offer three students a seat in the meeting. The spots filled up immediately. I ran up to Lucinda Qu, a student activist who was about to go in.

“You have to talk about the mandatory leave,” I urged.

“I will, I promise,” she said. I sat back down. A few minutes later, the same person who let three of us in came back out. There was room for two more students. This time, I was one of them.

The two of us joined the three other students sitting at the back of the room. During the meeting’s first few minutes, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr acknowledged the recent tragedy and addressed mental health on campus. She mentioned new support systems for students in crisis at this time, and underscored last year’s investments in new counsellors and additional aid.

When the provost finished, my fellow students and I were poised to continue this discussion, but the board secretary changed the topic. “The main focus of our meeting today is student fees and budget,” he said. The students’ concern over U of T’s mental health crisis was not ‘the main focus,’ at least not here. Someone gave us copies of the 2019-2020 budget report. I opened the booklet to the centre spread and saw bold white letters on a glossy blue background: “Priority Investments.” A metaphor put into words. As Governing Council members discussed budgetary planning and tuition changes, I realized that our demands for better mental health services were not a priority investment. I looked at the other student who had walked in with me.

“Wait — what exactly are we here for?” they asked me. This student held a framed picture of their friend who had died by suicide. Five students were physically present in the meeting, but when I looked at the picture, I realized that we were six. Perhaps, in some form or other, we were even more.

“I have no idea,” I said. I had no idea why — or how — a regular budgetary meeting was happening as though students weren’t protesting outside, as though a student hadn’t died the day before.

On the back of the budget report, I scribbled notes on why the university’s mandatory leave of absence policy fails to comply with the criteria outlined by Ontario Human Rights Commission. The other students compiled a statement about U of T’s mental health crisis on a public Google Doc, where students from the outside chimed in with online suggestions. There weren’t just five of us in the room. There were dozens.

After 45 minutes of budget talks, the board secretary addressed the elephant in the room: the students. He gave us a few minutes to speak. Lucinda read a statement on behalf of the students who could not make it into the room.

“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here,” she said, “and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening.” My heart sank and a lump rose in my throat. Lucinda read sections of the collaborative document where students had listed inadequate responses: “It is UNACCEPTABLE to have waiting lists for access to mental health services. It is UNACCEPTABLE to have understaffed and unresponsive counseling services.”

In the Google Doc, students capitalized “UNACCEPTABLE,” flagging the need for emphasis. Lucinda’s voice carried this collective inflection. I think my voice would have cracked. “Time and time again,” Lucinda said, “we have participated [in] fruitless discussions with people who are supposed to be our allies.” The board secretary interrupted her. “I’m going to ask you to sum up,” he said. Crucial discussions become fruitless when cut short. Despite the impossible task of condensing a crisis in one minute, Lucinda pressed the administration to work with us “in a public, honest, and materially significant capacity.”

The secretary thanked her for “that thoughtful and well-articulated presentation.” President Meric Gertler expressed his shared concerns and thanked everyone who contributed to the statement. “We recognize that institutions like this university can and should do more to address these issues,” he said.

The president stated that the university has “invested in good faith — not bad faith — in many service improvements across all three of our campuses, and the investments are quite substantial. Clearly, there is the need to do more.” He continued, “I just want to signal here an openness, and indeed an enthusiasm, to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better.”

Regehr spoke next. She said that the administration will continue to invest in mental health, while acknowledging that many of those current investments fall short. “With respect to consultation,” she added, “we will absolutely continue to meet with our students. Professor [Sandy] Welsh and I meet regularly with our student leaders, and that is an issue that is on the table and we commit to continuing to do that.” In response to calls for systemic change at U of T, Regehr explained that the university has a “new expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience.”

When the provost finished, the board secretary thanked us again for this moving speech before moving on. I put my hand up. “I’m sorry, we can’t take questions at this time,” the secretary said.

I didn’t have any questions. I had a statement.

“We need to address the mandatory leave of absence policy,” I said. “A student died this weekend, and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students. I don’t know when I’m going to have another opportunity to share why U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is unacceptable.” I stumbled over every word. I was already standing and ready to read when the board secretary granted me permission.

“I think you should be allowed to read it, but I’d ask that you keep your comments to one minute,” he said. “It’s an additional request and we’d like to move on with our regular budget meeting, so please keep your comments brief.” I spoke for four minutes and 58 seconds. Here is part of what I said:

U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is incompatible with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The policy claims to “provide reasonable accommodation to the point of undue hardship” as per the OHRC. On January 29, OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote, “the Policy may result in discrimination” and “falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code.” By approving the policy after making minor edits, the university sends the following message to students: although the OHRC flags potential human rights violations, the policy still stands, and its administrators stand behind the policy. By stressing the OHRC’s “duty to accommodate,” the policy preemptively defends itself from critique within a human rights framework. If a student is in crisis, the policy claims, “it may not be consistent with the duty to accommodate to merely let the student confront significant negative academic consequences.” By touting a mandated leave of absence as an accommodation, the university misunderstands the OHRC’s policies. This policy fits what the OHRC calls “denial of access,” whereby post-secondary institutions “exclude students with disabilities” and denies them “equal opportunity in their education.” The OHRC also claims “education providers have a duty to accommodate students with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship.” Allowing mentally ill/Mad-identified students barrier-free access to education does not constitute undue hardship; it grants them the equal opportunity that post-secondary institutions must provide. According to specific criteria listed in the OHRC, undue hardship entails accommodations that are too onerous in terms of cost and health and safety.

The policy capitalizes on the “health and safety” criterion of undue hardship by conflating mentally ill people at risk to themselves with those who pose a risk to others, a narrative which perpetuates discriminatory stereotypes. The policy conflates “a risk of harm to self or others” in the threshold for a mandated leave. This scenario maintains that Mad people are dangerous. Most Mad/mentally ill people, however, are not violent but subject to violence. If a student poses a risk to others, however, the university should mandate removal from studies as per the student code of conduct. There are, however, documented incidents where abusers and assailants have been allowed to remain in class and on campus. The OHRC cautions against “ignorance and misunderstanding about people with psychosocial disabilities,” and the policy reveals such ignorance. Students may appeal their mandated leave “no later than 10 business days after the decision.” This 10-day deadline ignores the complexities of mental health. Someone admitted to a psychiatric hospital, as I have been several times, might not be able to contact the university and organize their defence. Students must also apply “at least 30 days prior to the term in which the student wishes to enrol.” A student forced to leave at the beginning or middle of a term can only return in the following term. If a student does not meet the 30-day deadline, the university may “terminate” their registration. The student must organize around their crisis to ensure their post-secondary education is neither suspended nor terminated. A student’s return would involve “periodic review,” “verification,” “monitoring,” and “indication that the student may be subject to ongoing conditions.” This kind of surveillance will exacerbate symptoms of paranoia and anxiety that many people with mental illness experience. The policy stigmatizes students with mental health issues. This stigma, the OHRC claims, may “lead institutions to develop policies, procedures and decision-making practices that exclude or marginalize people with mental health disabilities.”

I urge you to revise a policy that is clearly not working and clearly not for us. I suggest a policy designed to mandate the leave of abusers and assailants on campus who pose actual threats to other students, and a separate policy designed to support students in crisis who may pose a risk to themselves. Accommodate us without removing our autonomy. As the policy stands, students are afraid to seek help for fear of being placed on a mandated leave.

Posted by Lucinda Qu on Monday, March 18, 2019

My voice shook more than my hands. At this point, I went off script to maintain eye contact with individual members until they nodded.

“We see this policy, we see it in print, we see it in writing, and we are afraid. The consequences of this fear, the consequences of being silenced, [are] life-threatening.” I needed the governors to understand this fear. Last semester, University College’s mental wellness commissioner, Kiana Habibagahi, and I met with Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh to discuss the mandatory leave policy. Welsh said that the policy would be implemented in very few cases. To a person in crisis, this condition means nothing. The fear of being the rare exception keeps students from seeking help.

I thanked the board members for their time and sank in my seat. I cried. My fellow students gave me back-pats and a glass of water. The rim of the cup missed my mouth and most of the water spilled down my shirt, which was already damp from nervous sweat. I was a sopping puffy-eyed mess in a room full of people on Ontario’s Sunshine List.

The provost spoke: “I’ll just respond very briefly. I really want to thank the student for bringing this to our attention.” I tried to listen. I dissociated instead.

“When we brought the policy through last year,” the provost said, “we did undertake that we would be reporting back to governance about use of the policy and we will be doing that, as we promised.” I’m not interested in pulling back governance, or in the policy’s rare application. As long as the policy stands, so does the possibility of it being used against us.

The board secretary thanked the provost before shifting gears. “So unless there’s any other business to be raised by the board, the meeting will now move on —” One of the board members steered the discussion back to the policy, describing it as having “a certain chilling effect.” I sat up in my seat. The unexpected ally continued: “It is a strong concern and I have to admit, having thought about this policy in the months since we passed it, I have more concerns than when we approved it.” This shift from platitudes to critique hinted at progress. I felt, for the first time, that one person in the administration was on our side. He thanked us as we left the room. I’d like to thank him back.

At the end of the hall, two Campus Police officers were waiting to usher us out. An officer placed his hand on our backs to move us through the door one by one, dividing us with a firm push and a loud “Next!” It was as though we were criminals. “Next!” I waited in line behind my four fellow students. “Next!” I have PTSD from a history of sexual assault. Too many strangers have put their hands on my body. “Next!” The officer pressed his hand against my lower back.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Fine,” he said, with a have-it-your-way indignation. I was delirious from a sleepless night and a nightmarish day. And now I was triggered.

When I felt the officer’s hand on my back, Lucinda’s statement came back to me: “It is unacceptable.” It is unacceptable that campus police use intimidation strategies. It is unacceptable that campus police do not consider students who may have a history of trauma, students who come from marginalized communities that are susceptible to police brutality, students who have the right not to be touched. It is unacceptable that I have to include a tangent on the police in this article.

Yet poor mental health care and police intervention inevitably ally. I call on the administration to address the systemic connection between campus police responses and issues surrounding student mental health. In a recent meeting that a group of students and I held with Janine Robb, the Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, I learnt that two years ago, campus police could handcuff students during a mental health crisis. Today, careless campus police actions are symptoms of this sanist legacy.

And to the officer who touched students that day: keep your hands off us.

I finally joined the students who were peacefully protesting in the hall. I knew they’d be waiting for us. Lucinda and I gave brief statements. Microphones and TV cameras loomed. Still, the daunting media apparatus intimidated me less than the board meeting whose members wanted us to keep our statements brief. No one was watching the clock here. I sat back down among the protesters, most of whom I didn’t know. I just knew that I cared about these people deeply and felt their care just as intensely. I cannot overstate the richness of our communal support.

Toward the end of the evening, a group of students lingered in our space of protest. On his way out, Gertler addressed us. He thanked Lucinda and me for our moving speeches. We thanked him for the opportunity to speak. He then expressed a strong desire to engage in further discussions with students.

Students are not interested in being heard without being listened to. It will be the administrators’ privilege to listen to those of us who are still here to speak. When deference doesn’t get us change, we need to make demands. I’m demanding that the administration consult with us and implement substantive policy changes as per our pleas.

“I’ll be honest,” I said to Gertler. “Students feel like the administration is working against us, not for or with us.” Prepositions matter. Consultations matter. These forms of language and communication often go wrong. He assured that he would consult with students.

President Gertler, I will take you up on your offer for further discussions, for meaningful and regular consultations. My friends and I look forward to working with you and your colleagues.

As we continue this work, our responsibility to one another requires respect for those who are grieving, for those who need privacy, and for those whose stories are not ours to tell. Amid the anger, the protests, and the collective demand for change, we cannot forget the mourning.

We cannot forget the seemingly small gestures that just might sustain someone who is struggling. After the protests, the board meeting, the media coverage, the organizing, and the grief of that long Monday, I met up with one of my closest friends. He brought me to his place so that I could do laundry and take a shower. It had been a while since I had done either of those things. The next day, another dear friend gave me Tylenol for a crushing headache and let me lie in her lap for a moment. My friends’ simple acts of care were more necessary than I can explain. I’d argue that helping someone meet their basic needs is more important than reading a statement at a board meeting.

I’d like to end with a note on language. People do not ‘commit’ suicide; they die by suicide as a result of a broken, ableist, and sanist system that does not support those who struggle. Prepositions matter.

On June 24, 2018, a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre.

On June 27, 2018, Governing Council approved the university-mandated leave of absence policy.

We warned the administration that the policy would dissuade students from seeking help, that the risk of student suicide could rise.

We hoped we wouldn’t be right.

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

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

Warning signs of suicide include:

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

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

U of T President Meric Gertler announces new task force on student mental health

Unit will consult with students, campus organizations

U of T President Meric Gertler announces new task force on student mental health

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Following a student death at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology earlier this month and an increasing public outcry over perceived inaction on mental health, U of T President Meric Gertler announced today that the school will be establishing a Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health to “review mental health supports and services for students at U of T.”

According to the letter, the task force will conduct a series of consultations with students and student groups on campus, which Gertler called a “key part” of its mandate. It will also draw on expertise provided by the university’s faculty.

The letter comes two weeks after emergency services were called to campus after a student died by suicide. Gertler acknowledged that the period since has been “an extremely difficult time for our community, as we mourn the tragic death of one of our students.”

This tragedy – especially after similarly tragic events earlier in this academic year – has triggered profound shock, sorrow, anger and frustration,” he noted. “It has also triggered an extraordinarily important discussion about suicide prevention and student health and wellness more broadly. This discussion has been collegial and thoughtful. It has heightened awareness of these issues throughout the U of T community. It has also helped position us to make significant progress in the future.”

The task force will be chaired by Trevor Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and senior assessors will include Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh and Vice-Provost Graduate Research and Education Joshua Barker. The unit’s membership will include students, faculty, and staff.

The letter also outlined further plans of action, which includes having the Expert Panel on Undergraduate Student Educational Experience consider “explicitly the broader issue of learning cultures, competitiveness, student wellbeing and student supports in its deliberations and its recommendations.”

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

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

Warning signs of suicide include:

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

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

U of T receives $100 million donation for innovation advancement

Largest-ever donation to fund 750,000-square-foot innovation complex for AI, biotechnology research

U of T receives $100 million donation for innovation advancement

U of T has received a $100 million donation to fund a new innovation research complex that will support artificial intelligence (AI) and biomedical research. The donation, from the Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman Foundation, is the largest that the university has ever received. U of T President Meric Gertler, Toronto Mayor John Tory, and Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains were among the speakers who lauded the donation at U of T’s March 25 press conference.

“Today we enter an incredibly exciting new chapter in this history of generosity, signalling a new era of world-leading innovation and progress at the University of Toronto,” Gertler said.

Gerald Schwartz is the founder and CEO of private equity firm Onex. Heather Reisman is the founder and CEO of book retailer Indigo.

Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre

The new 750,000-square-foot Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre will be located at the corner of College Street and Queen’s Park. U of T expects that the building will host thousands of researchers, investors, industry partners, and international visitors annually. The building will also house the new Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Gertler told The Varsity after the announcement that the centre will provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate U of T students from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities and law. “All of these disciplines are really trying to understand this incredibly tumultuous time that we’re in, both [with] the advances of technology and their applications but also what it means for society,” Gertler said. “Students will be fundamental for this.”

U of T will appoint a director to lead the new institute, who will oversee the development of programming and research initiatives, as well as the creation of new fellowships and a research fund. The institute will research digital surveillance laws and the ethical and societal implications of AI and biotechnology.

U of T Professor Emeritus, winner of the Turing Award, and leading AI researcher Geoffrey Hinton said, “My hope is that the Schwartz Reisman institute will be the place where deep learning disrupts the humanities.”

Construction will begin in the fall.

The donation

Reisman said that the donation was inspired by an article that the billionaire couple had read about U of T’s plans to further tech-driven entrepreneurship, business partnerships, and artificial intelligence leadership. She praised U of T for creating “a foundation upon which true greatness can be built.”

“At the end of the day, what stirs us most is the opportunity to supercharge the university’s ability to recruit and inspire the best,” Reisman said. “We are grateful to be part of something so pregnant with possibility.”

The gift is the largest donation ever made to the Canadian innovation sector.

“A testament to our excellence as a city”

Tory praised the donation as further evidence that Toronto is a powerhouse in international innovation. He said that continued public, private, and philanthropic investment are needed to succeed academically and commercially and that he hopes the donation will encourage further donations to Toronto’s innovation sector. “It is vital to our ability to finance the things that are very human, whether it’s education or whether it’s support for those who are struggling,” Tory said. He added that the gift will attract more researchers and academics to the city.

Bains also emphasized the importance of an “all hands on deck” approach in furthering the federal government’s long-term vision to “build a nation of innovators.

“I think it’s a great day not only for Toronto — I think it’s a great day for Canada. The investment… will make sure that Canada will leave its mark on the world,” Bains said.

Hinton added that the donation “will further cement Toronto’s leadership as a thriving industry for innovative applications of AI.”

— With files from Srivindhya Kolluru

U of T President Meric Gertler on international student fees

Gertler: U of T looks “at what our peer institutions are doing” to set tuition levels

U of T President Meric Gertler on international student fees

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T President Meric Gertler explained comments he recently made in a BBC News interview, in which he said that increasing international tuition led to an increase in demand from international students, saying that the university also takes other factors such as funding and peer institutions into account.

In the BBC interview, Gertler said that because of a higher education market driven by status, people seemed to have a “hard time reconciling” U of T as an inexpensive postsecondary institution and yet a top-30 university.

“When we increased price, we found demand went up — as did the quality of the applications,” Gertler said to BBC.

Speaking to The Varsity shortly after the BBC interview, Gertler said that the university took other factors into consideration when setting tuition fees for international students, especially given the fact that neither the federal nor provincial government provide postsecondary institutions with funding for non-domestic students. The university thus has to cover the “full costs associated with educating those students.”

When asked if U of T increased its fees in part as a way to attract more students from abroad, Gertler said that this was not the case.

“While many of our international students do not require financial assistance, a significant number of them do,” he said. “We have been able to — through the international tuition revenues that we have brought in — fund some international student scholarships.”

The president also mentioned that U of T looks “at what our peer institutions are doing,” in terms of setting fee levels, including in public university systems in places like California, Washington, and Michigan. “We obviously want to be in the similar bands to them,” he said. “We don’t want to be higher and we also don’t want to be lower.”

Gertler said that another factor is the cost of “various services that ensure that [international students] are prepared for a successful experience while they are students here. So there’s special counselling, Centre for International Experience, and things like that that are relevant.”

Tuition fee increases are set differently for domestic and international students. Under provincial regulations, domestic fees cannot be increased past a certain ceiling every year. International fees are unregulated, meaning the university can increase them at a higher rate than for domestic students. Fee increases are proposed by senior administration officials and approved by Governing Council, U of T’s highest decision-making body.

As for the rising number of international students at U of T, Gertler explained that this was due to the university’s active drive to recruit overseas.

“We compared our international enrolment to other peer institutions and found that we were actually lower than a lot of our peers,” he said. “While it’s true that Toronto is a very global city, we found that the university wasn’t quite as globalized as the city itself,” Gertler added, noting that students benefit from having more international students in the classroom.

Around 16.2 per cent of the University of Washington’s Seattle campus students and roughly 14 per cent of the University of Michigan’s students were international.

According to U of T’s 2017–2018 numbers, around 21.3 per cent of students were international.

International fees background

If it seems like international student fees are ever-increasing, you’re not wrong. An undergraduate student entering the University of Toronto in 2019 will pay as much as $59,230 in tuition fees, or roughly four per cent more than someone just the previous year. A student entering U of T in 2015 paid as much as $43,540, or 36 per cent less than in 2019.

According to Statistics Canada, it’s part of a general trend across the country. Data collected by the federal agency shows that the average tuition for an international student rose 6.3 per cent for the 2018–2019 academic year, not including incidental fees and other day-to-day expenses.

Meric Gertler fired from Waterfront Toronto board of directors amid Google deal

Province also dismisses chair Helen Burstyn, Michael Nobrega for unknown reasons

Meric Gertler fired from Waterfront Toronto board of directors amid Google deal

U of T President Meric Gertler is among three board members who were fired by the Ontario government on December 6 from Waterfront Toronto, a public agency that is working on revitalizing the city’s waterfront through a controversial partnership with Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

In a report from The Associated Press, Waterfront Toronto chairperson Helen Burstyn confirmed Thursday that herself, Gertler, and another board member, Michael Nobrega, had been removed for unknown reasons.

Burstyn said the provincial Minister of Infrastructure Monte McNaughton informed her of the decision but declined to provide a reason for their dismissal.

Waterfront Toronto’s board of directors is composed of four representatives from each of the federal, provincial, and municipal levels of government — including a chair approved by all three — but has recently been hit by high-profile resignations.

The organization partnered with Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, in June to turn the area into a wired community filled with apartments, offices, shops, and other institutions.

The deal raised concerns with Ontario’s auditor general, whose report earlier this week said it was rushed. Others have pointed out that there may be some privacy implications of allowing one of the world’s largest technology company such a wide rein over public property.

In a statement to The Varsity, McNaughton directly referenced the auditor general’s report on Waterfront Toronto. He said that “oversight needs strengthening” and that the agency “failed to properly consult with its overseers,” which he called “unacceptable.”

“Accordingly, I have informed the three current Provincially-appointed board members that we are bringing new leadership to the board,” McNaughton said. “I want to thank the three Board members for their service to the province. We will be announcing their replacements in the time ahead.”

Burstyn told The Associated Press that she does not regret the partnership with Sidewalk Labs.

Elizabeth Church, U of T spokesperson, confirmed that Gertler had been asked to step down from the board, and said he “served at the pleasure of the government and will continue to do work to encourage city-building efforts through his role as President of the University of Toronto.”

Gertler was appointed to the board in January 2017, and brought years of expertise in urban planning with degrees from the University of California Berkeley and Harvard University. At the time, he said his goals would focus on developing affordable and accessible housing for Torontonians.

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.

HEQCO report calls U of T “Ontario’s flagship Institution”

Report criticizes funding mechanism for post-secondary institutions for only rewarding enrolment growth

HEQCO report calls U of T “Ontario’s flagship Institution”

A provincial government report has found that U of T is playing a lead role among Ontario’s universities.

The report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) entitled, “The Differentiation of the Ontario University System: Where are we now and where should we go?” singled out the University of Toronto as “Ontario’s flagship institution.” This report looked at the differentiation of universities in Ontario based on equitable access, student acceptance, the learning environment, and student graduate achievements.

The report indicated that University of Toronto is excelling in notable platforms such as a strong and equitable learning environment, as well as being a model for other universities in Ontario.

HEQCO is an independent government agency that is responsible for recommending and researching higher educational policy. HEQCO suggests policies or forms of practice to substantially increase equitable entrance and success for students, and greater financial policies to support students.

University of Toronto president Meric Gertler was elated by the report findings.

“This analysis confirms U of T’s flagship position within the Ontario system, as an institution of research and teaching that is recognized around the world,” Gertler told U of T News.  “We need to do all we can to attract the best minds to our campuses, to provide the best learning environment to our students and give them the kinds of opportunities that prepare them well for lifelong success.”

HEQCO also recommended that U of T could improve in some areas, one of which was in relation to diversification of revenue sources; according to HEQCO the university relies too heavily on enrolment growth.

The report recommends restructuring the funding strategy in order for U of T to maintain its status as an internationally competitive university.

Gertler noted in the U of T News report, “This report acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all funding model makes it increasingly difficult for us to deliver on this commitment.”

In conversation with Meric Gertler

U of T president on education funding, Black Lives Matter, being a foodie

In conversation with Meric Gertler

As the 2015–2016 academic year comes to a close, The Varsity sits down with Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, to have a candid conversation about some of the most prominent campus issues. 

The Varsity: My first question is do you think that education is a right?

Meric Gertler: Do I think that education is a right? I believe that societies have an interest and an obligation to ensure that as many of its members as possible can be educated, so, you know, my objective would be very much in line with the policy of this university, which is that anyone who is academically qualified should not be prevented from entering a program or completing a program for reasons related to financial need. So there’s a pretty strong values statement underlying that position.

TV: So with that in mind, would you support the idea of free tuition?

MG: I would support the idea of free tuition for those students and their families who need it. It makes no sense to have a blanket free tuition policy, because you’d end up subsidizing a large number of students and their families who don’t need the assistance, so I would much rather that we allocate as much of our public resources as possible to those that are most in need.

Having said that, there are good reasons why a portion of every student’s education cost should be paid for by the state, i.e, by the public sector, because there are public benefits that accrue to society when we educate an individual student. So there are private benefits the student enjoys in terms of their lifelong learnings and their lifetime satisfaction, but there are also social benefits, so it makes sense for the cost of education to be shared in that regard.

TV: Do you think that regular tuition increases are the best kind of long-term strategy to combat lack of funding?

MG: I’d rather not answer that in the abstract. I think that — let’s relate it to the context in Ontario, where we have seen many years where the provincial government has, in my view, not fulfilled its responsibility to underwrite the cost of education through the grant that it gives to the universities for each student. So my druthers, my preference, would be to see those grant transfers going up, so that we could hold the line on tuition fees or pass through smaller fees. So you know, that would be my preference. The fact that they have been unwilling or unable to do that has largely explained why we have had to bring in the tuition increases that we have.

That said, this university I think has done a very good job, through fundraising and other commitments that it has made, to enable students who lack the financial means to be admitted to the university and also to complete programs. And I think that the recent proposals in the last provincial budget, with respect to repackaging financial aid and restructuring, are a welcome move because I do think that they will simplify and clarify the process by which students obtain financial aid and will help encourage a larger number of otherwise qualified students to apply when they may not have had in the past.

TV: Do you have any plans to strike an ad-hoc committee to address the possibility of boycott, divestment and sanctions at U of T?

MG: Could you say that again?

TV: Do you currently have plans to strike an ad-hoc advisory committee — in a similar way that there was one for divestment [from fossil fuels] and one for sexual assault and harassment — do you plan to strike a similar committee for that, to consider boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel?

MG: No.

TV: Why not?

MG: Because we have been very clear on our position with regard to that issue. We feel that it makes little sense to support the idea of boycotting interaction with an entire nation, that it is far more sensible to encourage those who want to make solid evidence-based arguments in opposition to current policies about particular government to do so, both in Israel and here, if they feel strongly about it. 

It makes sense for us to be a place, for the University of Toronto to be a place, where civil discussions of pressing issues around the Middle East, for example, can take place, and where [we] hopefully generate more light than heat, where we can really advance understanding of the issues and hopefully advance progress towards reconciliation of the different views. That to me is the appropriate role for the university with regard to these issues.

Gertler gives a lecture entitled "Big city, big ideas" in 2014, hosted by the IMFG. Jessica Song/THE VARSITY

Gertler gives a lecture entitled “Big city, big ideas” in 2014, hosted by the IMFG. Jessica Song/THE VARSITY

TV: What would you say to students who would argue that, by following that policy, the University of Toronto would be complicit in human rights violations?

MG: I disagree.

TV: …What’s your relationship with the University of Toronto [Asset Management Corporation (UTAM)]?

MG: We are, I guess, the sole shareholders in UTAM, so it is an arms-length corporation from the university, which is solely owned by the university. It is governed by a board and I sit on that board. It is otherwise responsible for really upholding the fiduciary duty on behalf of the beneficiaries. So the beneficiaries are the members of the pension plan, and those that benefit from the payments from the endowments, so that would be the members of the university community at large.

TV: Graduate student workers have been clamouring for over five years for funding to be increased at minimum to the low income cut-off for Ontario. Has the University of Toronto done this?

MG: So, this too is a question that needs to be set into a larger context. The issues that were underlying the strike last year were many and varied. Some of them speak directly to funding, and I think very clearly the university is engaged in a pretty extensive conversation about what we can do to raise financial support for graduate students.

I think that conversation naturally implicates the various different divisions of the university that admit graduate students, in line with the budget model that we have had in place for eight or nine years, where the bulk of revenues that come into the university accrue to those faculties, those divisions. Where the decisions about how those revenues are spent are made at that level, in line with decisions about the nature of academic programs. So what we’re seeing now is a lot of discussions happening at the level of individual deans, coordinated by the dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

But you know, there are other issues related to that, that I think contributed to the strike that we had last year and the unhappiness that was expressed by many members of the community at that time, such as how well we support our graduate students by non-financial means, and by that, I mean how well we enable them to make proper progress through graduate programs, in as little time as possible while still of course ensuring a high-quality outcome, how well we support them in terms of their career development and professional development and prepare them for their transition from graduate studies to whatever comes next.

[When] it comes to whatever comes next, we need to recognize that while for somewhere between a quarter and a half of our graduating doctoral students, that usually means an academic position and an academic career path. For the other half to three quarters, it actually means a different kind of career path, and we haven’t really done a very good job up ’til now preparing our students to consider multiple career paths and to prepare them for non-academic careers, so this too is a conversation which is really gathering steam.

Additional concerns would relate to things like transparency: how clearly and effectively we communicate with graduate students at the point where they are entering graduate programs, or even at the point where they are considering applying to graduate programs. Things like, what are the actual levels of funding available for graduate students in these programs? What are the sources of those funds? How long will the program be, on average? And what are placement rates for students when they graduate?

So we’ve actually done quite a lot already and the School of Graduate Studies has adopted a consistent set of indicators and metrics that are now posted publicly for every graduate program in the University of Toronto and that’s a huge gain. And related to that, we want to make sure that every one of our graduate units employs best practices when it comes to telling our graduate students, in a timely way, what form of funding they will have and when they can expect to receive it, so students can plan with much less uncertainty and anxiety then they’ve had before. So many, many changes are underway as a result of the strike.

CUPE members on strike in 2015. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

CUPE members on strike in 2015. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

TV: U of T recently has taken over food services. What’s your plan to protect the rights of food service workers on campus?

MG: So there, our goal is to welcome the workers who were previously employed by Aramark. The objective of this change is really to improve the quality of food service on campus. This is really an example of in-sourcing, so that we can reassert control over how food services are delivered.

I’m a foodie myself, I believe that the quality of what we eat has a direct bearing on how productive we are as a community and how attractive U of T is as a place to come and study or to work, and I think that the move makes a lot of sense.

This was not designed as a plan to fire a bunch of workers, so we plan to transition the workers from Aramark to U of T. They will, I gather, be changing unions as a result. UNITE HERE will be — is their former union and they’re going to be, I guess, moving to a different union. That is an agreement that was worked out between the unions themselves and we don’t play a role in that particular process.

TV: What’s your favourite food? I’m curious.

MG: “I am an omnivore, so I love to — and I’ve said this in public before — I love to go along streets in places like Scarborough, going east on Lawrence, where you can find seven different versions of Chinese food, Malaysian food, Middle Eastern food, of every possible variety. Japanese, you name it, Hakka, sort of hybrid cuisines, which are really interesting. I spend a lot of time eating in Scarborough actually, for that reason.

TV: Have you had any meetings with the Black Liberation Collective?

MG: Not me directly, although Angela Hildyard, our vice president for human resources & equity, and I believe Sandy Welsh, our vice provost, students have met with them. And I know Sandy Hudson very well from her days as a leader in Arts & Science and of course as a governor at Governing Council, and I have certainly followed very closely the conversations that are underway and the issues that Black Lives Matter have put on the table.

TV: So are there plans to permit students to do exchanges to universities in Africa?  

MG: That’s a great question. I can’t say that there are any current plans, but let me relate that to the sort of conversations that are underway around international strategy for the university,where I’ve been arguing that we need to deepen and strengthen partnerships with key universities around the world. And as I have presented that idea around the university, people have responded very positively and one of the reactions has been ‘well, let’s make sure we go beyond the usual suspects you know, those universities that are in the Top 50 of The Times’ Higher Education rankings. Let’s consider emerging markets and nations that are really developing quickly, but with whom we have very few linkages, and Africa is often mentioned in that regard and I would be very interested in pursuing prospects there.

At the same time — and this is true for wherever we partner — if it comes to students abroad and student mobility, we have to ensure safety and so we have very clear guidelines around those issues, which we will have to respect when we develop exchange programs.

Brian Rankin/The Varsity

Brian Rankin/The Varsity

TV: What do you feel is your lasting project for U of T?

MG: Well, I am very passionate about a few things. First and foremost, though, I’ve spent a lot of time as dean of Arts & Science and now as president, really thinking hard about undergraduate education and how we can ensure that our students are really well-prepared for a lifetime of success. I’ve just spent the morning, actually, with presidents from across the country under the auspices of universities — Canada’s having their semi-annual meeting here in Toronto — and we spent time, actually with the bank president, Dave McKay from RBC, talking about this very issue: what kinds of competencies do our students need to succeed in life after they leave university?

I’m thrilled to report that the consensus was that it comes down to the kinds of things that we’ve actually been focusing on a lot, certainly in Arts & Science and elsewhere across the university. It’s communication skills, it is the ability to solve problems and to think critically, to put together arguments effectively whether you’re using qualitative or quantitative forms of evidence, to work well in teams. These sort of competencies which are kind of, in many ways, orthogonal to the subject matter of the discipline that you’re studying, but where we need to ensure that all students in whatever program they pursue have an opportunity to develop these capacities.

So, that suggests that we’ve been on the right track, but I think we’ve got a lot more progress still to be made. There’s an awful lot of interest around experiential learning and service learning, and that too is something that I have been a champion for as dean and now president. And that relates actually to my two other passions.

One is the city and taking better advantage of our fortunate location — or locations — in three parts of the Greater Toronto Area for the benefit of our students. So many students want some kind of internship experience or a co-op or a professional experience here, or a service learning experience in a course, or some other variation on that theme. And we’re very fortunate to be situated in this place, which offers so many rich possibilities.

So how do we do more of that for our students? Whether it’s in the classroom experience or part of a research project or an internship. Recognizing that when we do so, we’re not only enriching the experience for students and better preparing them for whatever comes next, we’re also helping them help the city, working with community-based organizations and neighbourhood groups or public agencies, so we can serve dual objectives.

And the same goes for research on the city. We have so much expertise here that can take… fuller advantage of the urban challenges and opportunities on our doorstep, and at the same time, help to advance various causes, whether it be improving public transportation in the city, something that we’ve been doing recently in connection with York, Ryerson, and OCAD; improving the public health issues; addressing income inequality; ensuring that newcomers, refugees, and others have an opportunity to really excel: and a whole range of other urban issues. So we’ve got a lot of expertise here in the university, and I want to do everything possible to make it more available to groups outside the city, in the city region, who can benefit from exposure to that.

We’ve got a lot of expertise here in the university, and I want to do everything possible to make it more available to groups outside the city, in the city region, who can benefit from exposure to that.

And the last thing is around our global connections and our global reach, picking up on what you were asking earlier with regard to Africa. I firmly believe that one of our still kind of underutilized strengths here is that we’ve got these great connections around the world to other universities. and here too. Not only is it great for our researchers to be able to work on big, hairy, tough global issues, together with colleagues from around the world, but if we can get students involved in that work as well, then there’s double or triple payoff because it broadens their horizons through an international experience. It gives them experiential learning as part of a research team and often changes their lives and their whole way that they look at the world.

TV: Are you concerned that smaller programs, such as the Transitional Year Programme and Equity Studies for example, are you concerned that they will suffer if U of T concentrates its efforts on areas where it determines to be its strengths?    

MG: No, I’m not concerned. We have actually, in this budget, reinvested substantially in the Transitional Year Programme, and it is very much a part of our identity. One of the things about U of T of which I am most proud is our ability to combine our research excellence on the global stage with our accessibility and our openness, the fact that this is a place where 85,000 students study. It’s a very, very open place.

Half of our students — more than half our students now — receive OSAP, receive financial assistance. There is no other university in the world as highly-ranked as we are that has that level of openness and accessibility. The closest neighbours would be in the California system. I know that UC Berkley is around 30 per cent financial aid; we’re at 54 per cent this year. I’m extremely proud of that part of our mission, and I see programs like TYP as being completely consistent with that part of our mission. Same with academic bridging and every other program we have in place that makes it easier for students with disadvantaged backgrounds to come and study here.

So the other thing, just more generally, we have a kind of broad understanding that there’s some programs that will pay their own way in terms of having sufficient numbers of students, and others that won’t. But that’s the essence of a university, and it’s the essence of a university like this one, which is a broad, comprehensive institution and draws its strength from that breadth.

TV: I’m conscious of your time, so this is going to be my last question. Have you ever smoked marijuana?

MG: I have! A long time ago. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But yes, I don’t think there’s anyone in my generation that hasn’t. I was not a particular fan of it, to be honest.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.