“How do you sleep at night?”: students confront admin on mental health

President Gertler, Vice-Provost Welsh address student concerns at Academic Board meeting

“How do you sleep at night?”: students confront admin on mental health

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

On October 3, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, addressed U of T’s Academic Board and a handful of protestors in an unusually full Governing Council Chamber: “I want to assure all of you that we share your concerns.” The protestors showed up following the September 27 death of a student in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — the third in the same building and the fourth reported non-criminal student death in the past 16 months. Students, led by the UofT Mental Health Policy Council, a newly-created advocacy group, had come to express their frustration and exhaustion with the percieved lack of mental health support from the university.

Inside the chamber

Welsh reiterated the university’s actions toward increasing mental health support, having committed $3 million in the spring. They also acknowledged the university’s role in student mental health: “We are proud of our academic culture of excellence, but we understand that we all need to be aware of how that culture may affect students, and we all need to work to foster a more supportive community to help all of our students thrive.”

Disruption from protestors as the chair attempted to move the meeting back to normal business resulted in an agreement to allow four of the protestors to ask Welsh and President Meric Gertler questions. The four included U of T Mental Health Policy Council members and students from the Black Students’ Association.

“How many deaths was it going to take for you to do something before we made a ruckus and a mess of things?” questioned Shahin Imtiaz to a silent chamber of governors. “How do you sleep at night?”

Gertler responded after the students spoke, explaining the commitments of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health as well as the $1 billion Boundless campaign endowment for financial assistance to students.

“These are indeed issues that do keep us up at night,” said Gertler. “They do indeed seize all of us.”

An issue that became clear during the meeting was an unintended side effect of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, deterring students from seeking mental health support for fear of punitive action from the university.

“There is not a straight line from your registrar’s office to my office around this policy. And we need to do better at communicating… to students that this is a policy that is there to be supportive,” said Welsh in response to student demands that the policy be repealed.

However, after their allotted time to speak was over and the administration had given its response, protestors left when governors failed a two-thirds majority vote to adopt an amendment to the agenda and continued on with the predetermined schedule.

What happens now?

Besides the implementation of safety barriers in the Bahen Centre, the administration has been hesitant to make new commitments on mental health, even while student groups are increasingly calling for better support and services. Some faculty are also speaking out, calling on fellow professors to support student protestors.

Dr. Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor in the Department of English and at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society reflected on the death at the Bahen Centre in a thread on Twitter, explaining how professors are often on the forefront of assisting students dealing with mental health crises.

“In my five years’ experience as an assistant professor, I have referred countless students to health&wellness (a pretty common experience among my colleagues). But I was not prepared for the volume, range, and intensity of mental health experiences students entrusted me with,” tweeted Charise.

Jeffrey Ansloos, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, expressed similar concerns in an interview with The Varsity.

“I’m not in the role of therapists when I’m working with students. And I think for a lot of my colleagues who maybe are not psychologists or social workers or different types of health professionals, the role of what a professor is supposed to provide is unclear, and not only is it unclear, but sometimes they don’t know the resources that they need to direct students to,” said Ansloos. He further pointed out the inaccessibility and lack of mental health support on campus as problems.

“Recognizing that students may not always be able to deliver upon workloads or may need additional accommodations or considerations around accessibility. To me, that is a baseline expectation, that if a faculty member fails to deliver upon, I think is problematic. But I don’t, at the same time, think that every faculty member should be working in the role of therapists. And I don’t know that that would be appropriate either.”

Enough is enough, this is an emergency: U of T must immediately address its mental health crisis

Another student death at Bahen calls for immediate action from university administration, media, government

Enough is enough, this is an emergency:  U of T must immediately address its mental health crisis

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

When news broke on Friday that yet another person had died in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in an apparent suicide, the U of T community once again entered a cycle that has become horrifyingly familiar since it first appeared in mid-2018: grief, anger, and a question that is all the more tragic because of its frequency — ‘again?’

The mental health crisis at U of T had been apparent long before the first reported suicide on campus on June 24, 2018, and each known death since has only furthered the grief felt by students and highlighted U of T’s acute failure to address the problem.

This incident marks the third death at Bahen Centre and the fourth reported death on campus in less than two years. These are stories that we should never have to report on.

We call on the U of T administration to truly engage with the real pain that students are going through and implement immediate and institutional change.

The university’s lacklustre response

In March 2019, the student body responded to the second apparent death by suicide at the Bahen Centre through a series of protests and petitions calling for the U of T administration to be held accountable and to improve the access and quality of on-campus mental health services. Last year’s sit-in protest at the Medical Sciences Building undoubtedly garnered attention from those in power, yet so far their response has been based more on performative platitudes than meaningful action.

Although students have been calling for measures such as 24-hour counselling services, increased funding to mental health resources, and student-majority representation in policy-making, the university administration has instead focused on the implementation of policies that make little change. Furthermore, these policies are made without the consent of the student population.

For instance, President Meric Gertler’s mental health taskforce, which was formed after the second death in March, has not yet led to any change in policy concerning mental health. Its process has been long and seemingly unproductive, with many criticizing the number of students on the taskforce — four out of 13 to represent a tri-campus student body of over 91,000 students.

The university has also still not taken action to repeal the controversial mandated leave of absence policy, despite continuous student opposition over the past two years. The policy only serves to deter vulnerable students from seeking mental health counselling in fear of facing adverse academic effects. Since the policy’s enactment, eight students have been placed on mandated leave as of August 2019 and the university claims that the feedback has been positive.

We need a proactive administration, not a reactive one

This time around, the university did, to some degree, improve its response. For instance, U of T acknowledged the death on the very night of the incident. On Sunday, U of T announced plans to improve safety around the Bahen Centre, including the implementation of structural barriers. While this does not tackle the underlying issue, evidence has shown that installing physical barriers around suicide hotspots is associated with a reduction in suicide deaths.

This is a step in the right direction. However, the issue remains that the university behaves reactively, as opposed to proactively. The addition of safety barriers had been recommended by students after the first death as a precaution against further incidents, but the university has only now announced changes to the now-infamous building. This step comes far too late.

When it comes to funding, the administration has often shifted the blame or responsibility to other institutions, including the provincial government. In an interview with The Varsity, President Gertler said, “We are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization.”

This is not an adequate response; the university, with its wealth and stature, could take a stand if it chose too. Specifically, it should immediately and significantly invest in funding to improve the services provided at the Health & Wellness Centres on all three campuses.

This means reducing wait times for initial appointments and phone calls, ensuring follow-up after initial intake, and removing limits on the number of annual appointments students can access. Furthermore, any changes to mental health policy should be done with the consultation of students; ideally a large and diverse group of representatives.

On responsible mental health journalism

Irresponsible journalism from campus and mainstream publications alike certainly does not help with the crisis we are currently experiencing. Research suggests that media reporting can influence vulnerable people and that irresponsible media coverage is associated with higher rates of suicide.

Accordingly, a 2017 paper from the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) set out guidelines for reporting on suicide. For example, it suggests omitting the word “suicide” in the headline, or in any prominent spot online or in print.

However, a recent Toronto Star article did not meet these guidelines, as the word was put both in the headline and several times throughout the article. Fellow campus publication The Mike made this same mistake in a response to Friday’s death.

We were most disheartened when our colleagues at UTM’s student newspaper, The Medium, recently decided to publish an opinion piece which advocates for “The case for personal responsibility” when it comes to mental health. The article reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the structural nature of the mental health crisis, employs victim blaming, and does not support its opinion with enough credible scientific backing.

We acknowledge that The Varsity is also not perfect, so we wish to draw attention to the issue and encourage responsible reporting in good faith. We hope that these practices become more widespread as the journalism community, including ourselves, learns more about the mental health crisis.

The province must play its part

Although Gertler’s shifting of responsibility to the provincial government is not an adequate response to the crisis, the government is not in any way blameless. In July 2018, the Ford government cut $335 million from planned mental health funding that year. Cuts to services such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) have made it increasingly difficult for students to access support.

As of 2018, 61 per cent of first-entry undergraduate domestic students rely on some form of financial assistance, and such cuts further serve to increase anxiety. Responsibility falls to the university to do what it can to alleviate the implications of financial uncertainty on students’ mental health.

Though it sometimes feels like the responsibility for student mental health services is being passed from group to group with no avail, there is truth in the assertion that this issue must be tackled in a multi-level, multi-faceted way. There should be a shared responsibility for the provision of mental health and wellness services to students in need, and this begins with adequate funding for universities.

The provincial and federal governments have both pledged additional money toward mental health this year, but it is unclear how much of it will be directed at students and young people specifically. This is, hopefully, a step in the right direction, but the urgency of the situation at the University of Toronto requires more localized action. 

We stand with student advocacy

Student organizations have stepped up in the midst of lacklustre responses from government and university administrations through calls to action and solidarity. Last spring, a group of 15 students published an outstanding report entitled “Nothing About Us Without Us,” outlining student action, testimonies, and demands from the student population. Students have made impassioned and powerful pleas for action to the administration, and while the response remains underwhelming, this strong leadership does not go unnoticed by vulnerable students.

How Many Lives? is another example of a student-led initiative that hopes to produce actionable change. The resilience and determination of student leaders is inspiring, but it is difficult to advocate in darkness. U of T has yet to formally release data on student suicide rates, citing privacy and contagion. But withholding this information only serves to help the university, not students.

This university is not the haven it strives to be. If the administration refuses to admit to its failures, students will continue to suffer. At this point, enough is enough. We have no further patience for rhetoric. U of T: listen to students, and take radical, immediate action to support students from the moment they step foot on campus. The mental health crisis is an emergency, and we cannot stand for any more deaths in our community.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

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 admin, student groups, community respond to death at Bahen Centre

Building to receive safety barriers as students express frustration

U of T admin, student groups, community respond to death at Bahen Centre

Content warning: article may be triggering to some.

U of T will be installing safety barriers at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology after a student died in the building on Friday, the third death at the Bahen Centre in the past two years. Historically, U of T has been hesitant to acknowledge on-campus student deaths. Since the building re-opened on Sunday, the university has also established a memorial where community members can leave messages.

“We will continue to work on permanent changes,” said Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost, Students to U of T News, in reference to the temporary safety barriers that were installed on Sunday.

Floors six to eight have limited access. JOSIE KAO/THE VARSITY

In March, following the death of a student at the Bahen Centre, students pushed for action from the university’s administration, holding a silent protest outside of Simcoe Hall and disrupting a Governing Council meeting. Then-Vice-President, University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Joshua Grondin said that he had specifically requested the installation of a safety net or barrier at the Bahen Centre in January.

The protests after the second death led to the formation of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, which is currently in its consultation stage.

“This tragedy — especially after similarly tragic events earlier in this academic year ­— has triggered profound shock, sorrow, anger and frustration,” President Meric Gertler wrote to all students in his announcement of the Task Force in March.

Following the most recent incident, students organized an emergency meeting last Friday night at Sidney Smith Hall to discuss mental health on campus. There, they expressed frustration, anger, and disappointment about the mental health supports on campus.

The U of T Mental Health Policy Council, a newly-formed mental health student activism group, took to the Ontario Universities Fair on Sunday to hand out information pamphlets on mental health at U of T and to disrupt an information session.

Both the UTSU and the Arts & Science Students’ Union have released statements expressing condolences for affected students, faculty, and staff. In their letter, the UTSU committed to further supporting student mental health: “This administration needs to change and listen. We, the UTSU, also need to improve, and we will continue to commit ourselves to pushing for change.”


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’s mental health task force is largely performative so far

Initiative must tackle academic and admission policies to truly create tangible change

U of T’s mental health task force is largely performative so far

Content warning: this article contains discussions of suicide.

In the wake of a death by suicide at Bahen Centre for Information Technology on March 17, U of T President Meric Gertler issued a letter to students, staff, and faculty announcing the formation of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. This letter followed a large public outcry concerning the university’s inaction over the mental health crisis.

The task force was created to work toward the priorities identified in the university’s Student Mental Health Framework report. The mandate of the task force includes a review of mental health service delivery, coordination of tri-campus student mental health support, and partnerships with community-based mental health organizations. 

While the task force aims to strengthen pre-existing policies and improve mental health facilities, its mandate does not effectively tackle one major cause of stress: the administration’s academic and admission policies.  

University is a huge stepping stone from secondary education; many students find themselves in a completely new and strange environment. This can take a huge toll on a student’s academic performance.

And yet, it is a huge task to reserve an appointment with a health and wellness counsellor if the wait time for these services is too long. There is a lack of adequate safe counselling spaces and counsellors amongst the three campuses. Regardless of what the administrative policies might be, every student should have access to these services. 

Students are hoping to see more effective communication with faculty and staff to improve on these services. They hope to see tangible change. 

Earlier this year, President Gertler issued a statement clarifying that students’ mental health and physical well-being are the university’s utmost priority. 

However, “if that really was the case, then that needs to be embodied in the academic culture on all three campuses,” remarked Lina Maragha, a representative of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s ad hoc mental health committee. 

Academic culture has become toxic over the years, as represented by the mandated leave of absence policy. The policy not only potentially forces student facing mental illnesses to take leave from school, but also restricts them from accessing numerous services, including those provided by the Health & Wellness Centre. 

To restrict access to not just education, but also to essential services such as fitness centres, forces students to conceal their mental illnesses and prioritize academic achievement over mental well-being. Indeed, students may feel pressured or ashamed by their circumstances. 

Students want to see President Gertler’s message incorporated in the way that student life is structured and envisioned, including increasing academic forgiveness policies, having lenient timelines for credit/no credit options, and late withdrawal for any courses. 

As the task force’s mandate fails to address the GPA admission requirements to enter specific programs of study, there are steps that the administration can take toward creating a less stressful academic system. Other than lowering cutoff grades, U of T should make the program selection system abundantly clear to all prospective students. 

In conjunction, the university should discuss directly admitting students into their programs in their first year, as is the case in numerous prestigious universities around the world. Moreover, a more holistic application process may be a better reflection of students’ abilities, and the admissions committee may be able to grasp a better understanding of who the student really is.

Earlier this summer, U of T revealed the 13  members of the task force, with four students representing the diverse student population at three campuses. 

Maragha further commented that, “the current composition of the task force may not truly reflect the lived experiences of mental health by the community.” To tackle this, members of the community believe that it is important for the task force to have continuous discussions and consultations with students of all levels and status, and for the task force to integrate these consultations into its recommendations. 

Furthermore, there have also been instances where professors do not take mental health illnesses seriously or act in a manner which might cause stress to some students. For instance, in a 2016 article reported by City News, a professor dismissed a student because they did not “look sick.” 

Computer science students should be a particular focal point of the task force. Two deaths by suicide occured at the Bahen Centre this past year, which is the hub of computer science classes. These students are under intense pressure not only to get into their program, but also to succeed in highly competitive classes. 

“Even with the minimal changes previously made for U of T mental health services, students are still hopeful about changes in the near future,” said Maragha. 

The task force was formed as a result of increasing public pressure. The university administration failed to publicly recognize protesters for nearly two weeks, and mental health activists were shut down at Governing Council meetings. The announcement of the task force came after vast media coverage, and seems largely performative thus far.

Only one task force was made for three campuses that are in different geographical areas and whose student demographics differ drastically. This is not enough to review and address the entire community’s concerns. Only if and when the task force considers recommendations by students, and is willing to communicate effectively, will we begin to see a change in the happiness and health of the student population.

Vinayak Tuteja is a second-year Neuroscience and Bioinformatics student at University College.


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.

Meric Gertler on mental health, international tuition, and more

U of T President reflects on his sixth year in the job

Meric Gertler on mental health, international tuition, and more

After an eventful 2018–2019 academic year that was filled with student protests and provincial government changes, U of T President Meric Gertler sat down with The Varsity to reflect on the past 12 months. Gertler spoke on a number of issues, including mental health, international tuition, and truth and reconciliation. 

The Varsity: One of the biggest stories this past year was students’ mental health, with some students viewing U of T’s action on the topic as lacklustre. What do you say to people who believe U of T should be doing more?

Meric Gertler: We were certainly very concerned by the issues that arose during the past year and felt very strongly a responsibility to act. So I took the unusual step of writing to every member of our community. I don’t do that very often, but I just thought that for an issue like student mental health and its relationship to their well-being, it was really important to be able to communicate directly to all of our students as well as our faculty and staff to say, “We’ve heard you, we acknowledge how big an issue this is and how huge a challenge this is, and we’re committing to actually doing something concrete about it.” 

TV: In the letter that you sent out to all students, faculty, and staff, you mentioned that two of your priorities would be engaging with Toronto resources as well as the province. Would you say that the onus would be more on the province and the city to provide mental health services rather than the university? 

MG: So, we are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization, even though we deliver a lot of health care services to our students. This has been the subject of a lot of conversations with our provincial government partners. They recognize the challenge that we have. They have allocated additional funds in their last provincial budget towards mental health, in particular with a focus on student mental health. 

So we continue to expect to see some financial assistance from them. But, also, as your question quite rightly implies, this is a shared responsibility. Obviously, we have primary responsibility for the well-being of our students, but it is something that we expect to address jointly with health care institutions that are primarily funded by the provincial government. 

TV: Speaking of the provincial government, there have been a lot of changes this past year under the Ford administration to both university operations and university life for students. How do you view U of T’s relationship with the province?

MG: I’ll be quite honest here. We were really disappointed that the province did not communicate more openly with us before they made these many changes. That to me was the most disappointing part of the approach of the new government, and we were not quiet in communicating our unhappiness with the whole style with which they interact with us. 

The Strategic Mandate Agreement changes — which are putting a focus on performance-based funding — in theory, at least, we think this can work very well for U of T. It’s designed to enable each university to come forward and articulate what it thinks its distinctive strengths are, and then to base funding on those strengths. This is actually something we’ve been arguing for for 25 years in many ways and advocating for, so at least on paper, that seems to be very nicely aligned with the approach that we’ve been taking.

Other changes, like the 10 per cent cut to tuition we, frankly, think were unhelpful. I know that that particular move has been quite damaging to our budget… Now what are the consequences of that? Well, the consequences are that we have less money available to finance our own financial aid system within the university. 

TV: On the topic of affordability, international students pay much more in tuition than domestic students. How do you see this issue of increasingly unaffordable international tuition?

MG: International students have always paid more than domestic students. That gap has grown over time but this has been true for a long, long time, and it reflects a couple of things. It reflects the fact that we receive no government grants for international students, so there’s no subsidy at all from the province of Ontario for those students… The families of those international students have not been paying taxes in Ontario either, and I suppose that the provincial government may feel that that’s some justification for the fact that there is no grant support for those students. 

We are, though, mindful of the fact that we want to encourage a diverse community of international students to come to this university. It should not just be international students from wealthy families, but we want to enable all international students if they are academically qualified to potentially come here. So there too we’ve been active in creating scholarships for international students and fundraising for them.

TV: U of T has committed to the goals of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there was a Steering Committee report released in 2017 with recommendations for the university. Since that report came out, do you see any major gaps that U of T should be filling when it comes to truth and reconciliation? 

MG: This is another topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and also near and dear to the provost’s heart. We were greatly influenced by the work of our Steering Committee and enthusiastically adopted all of their recommendations. We’ve done some amazing things since then.

This past year we have hired 18 new Indigenous scholars, which is a remarkable achievement if you think about it, because every university in Canada is trying to do the same thing so it’s a very competitive labour market right now. We’re thrilled to have this incoming talent. So I would say that’s one area where we have really succeeded dramatically in. 

In the longer term, of course, we’re looking at the future of First Nations House and how best to accommodate all of the important activities that go on there. There have been discussions underway about whether the current location is the right location or not, and we’re looking at alternatives for that as well. I think we’ve got some impressive momentum underway, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

TV: Do you think that U of T has any institutional problems with addressing barriers of access for people?

MG: We’re one of the most open and accessible institutions in the world. If you think of our 90,000 students, the incredible diversity that we have, measured along any dimension you can think of, whether it’s the language that you spoke at home, the country you were born in, the ethnicity of your parents, your sexual orientation, your political views, you name it. 

I think it’s one of the things that is most defining of the University of Toronto is not just our academic excellence and the great rankings and we have every year, it’s our ability to combine that academic excellence with an incredible degree of openness and access which very few other universities around the world can match.

TV: And then once these students do get here, what accommodations do you think are necessary to make sure that everyone feels welcome at the school? 

MG: Making sure that everyone understands what our codes of student conduct entail, and what our policies entail with regard to freedom of expression and these kinds of important principles of academic freedom on which a university is based. That does require a little bit of effort to make sure that people understand those principles but I think we’ve got a pretty good system in place.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

U of T professors, alumni call on Gertler to “speak out” against Ford funding changes

Open letter asserts performance-tied funding serves ideological goals, not students

U of T professors, alumni call on Gertler to “speak out” against Ford funding changes

After the Ontario government announced in its 2019 budget that it would dramatically change the funding model for postsecondary education, a group of U of T professors and alumni wrote an open letter to President Meric Gertler on April 24 to express their concerns.

Among the changes in the provincial budget are plans to tie the amount of funding a school receives to how they are performing on a number of metrics, such as skills and job outcomes. Previously, funding was mainly tied to enrolment numbers.

In the open letter, the professors and alumni called on Gertler to refuse to participate in this new model, saying that the “proposed metrics do not in fact measure educational performance,” and their pursuit would only lead to “terrible incentives.”

The signees included professors Rachel Barney of philosophy and classics, James Allen of philosophy, Jennifer Nagel of philosophy, Sergio Tenenbaum of philosophy, and Jonathan Weisberg of philosophy, as well as alumni Stephen Chen and Terri Chu. 

View this document on Scribd

The letter cited graduation rates as an example of a damaging incentive, claiming that pressure to increase the number of postsecondary graduates would encourage universities to further privilege the admission of wealthy students, for whom finances would not interfere with graduation. Further, professors would be incentivized to pass all students, regardless of performance.

According to the signees, indicators such as this would “achieve the remarkable feat of making an Ontario university education at once less accessible and less meaningful.”

Furthermore, they assert that other proposed metrics do not correlate at all to education itself but rather to particular knowledge streams, which align with the government’s broader goals. In short, they say, “this is a radical attempt to realign what we teach and how we teach it on the basis of a political ideology.”

The letter acknowledges that the particular fogginess of the government’s plans make a “wait and see” approach palatable to institutional leaders, but it insists that this would be a “grave mistake.”

This is not business as usual, they write, and U of T should not collaborate with such a dangerous policy. They called on Gertler and his fellow academic leaders to “step up and speak out, and to refuse to collaborate in devising a regime that can only undermine the institutions [they] lead.”

Although the signees are sparse, the group expressed an intention to launch a grassroots advocacy campaign and an online petition to further share their message.

U of T response

According to U of T spokesperson Elizabeth Church, Gertler has since sent a response to the professors reassuring them that the university, as it is renegotiating the Strategic Mandate Agreement that governs provincial funding, will attempt to shape the way “performance” is defined.

Church went on to say that each university determines the weight of each indicator measured in the new provincial funding system, and as such, the university can place emphasis on areas of strength.

According to the budget, by 2024, 60 per cent of all university funding would be dictated by their adherence to these objectives. Currently, only 1.4 per cent of university funding and 1.2 per cent of college funding is connected to performance outcomes.

The performance indicators remain unreleased by the provincial government.

“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.