University Ombudsperson reflects on role as three-year term nears end

Community feedback being sought on status, progress of Ombudsperson

University Ombudsperson reflects on role as three-year term nears end

 

Professor Emeritus Ellen Hodnett’s three-year term as University Ombudsperson is coming to a close. Hodnett has served as a faculty member in the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing for 39 years and as an elected member of Governing Council for nine years.

Established in 1975, the Office of the University Ombudsperson is an independent body designed to provide confidential and impartial advice to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Based on these observations, the office publishes an annual report to inform Governing Council of the systemic issues that merit review.

Hodnett stressed that the role of the office is not for advocacy, but rather to ensure fair application of policy. She said that the office has a “great deal of informal power” with the publication of their reports. “I really like that it keeps everyone honest since our assessment of policy is open to the public.”

The Review Committee has been established to assess the role of the Ombudsperson, whose findings Governing Council must review and approve. Following this, the Search Committee will be established to find a successor. According to the terms of reference for the Office of the Ombudsperson, this is conventional practice.

Director of Media Relations Althea Blackburn-Evans said that no speculation can be made as to whether changes will be implemented as the review is still underway.

Hodnett remains concerned about the low number of people seeking support from the Ombudsperson’s office, especially from UTM and UTSC. According to the Ombudsperson’s 2016–2017 Annual Report, the office handled 339 cases, relatively similar to the numbers in 2015–2016 and 2014–2015, which respectively handled 316 and 314.

Hodnett said the office does not have the data to explain why so few members from each campus are using the office for support. “For all we know it could [be] because the policies in place are effective and people don’t have to reach us with their issues.” Hodnett suggested that the Review Committee consider having an Ombudsperson for each campus.

Hodnett plans to address this concern with the Review Committee, but she recognizes this is just one possible model. She emphasized the need for careful consultation and other ideas to increase accessibility and stimulate a productive dialogue.

University of Toronto Students’ Union President Mathias Memmel suggested that the Office of the University Ombudsperson focus beyond systemic issues. Further, he recommended a “greater emphasis on a timeline for implementation,” due to Governing Council’s slow responses to the Ombudsperson’s reports.

In addition, Memmel claimed the reports “tend to highlight one or two issues… excluding some simply because they don’t fit priority one or two.”

To assist in the assessment process, the Review Committee invites members of U of T to share their thoughts and feedback regarding the Office of the University Ombudsperson and submit nominations for the next Ombudsperson.

U of T Ombudsperson reports mental health accommodations concerns

Academic program had encouraged students with mental health disabilities to withdraw, report says

U of T Ombudsperson reports mental health accommodations concerns

The Office of the Ombudsperson’s annual report has been released, with a particular focus on the complaints it received surrounding mental health accommodations.

Of the 316 complaints received by the Ombudsperson in the 2015–2016 academic year, 26 of the complainants were registered with accessibility services for mental health reasons; some complaints related to accommodations.

Several of these complaints consumed “the most time for the Office and the many administrative staff involved,” a portion of the report describes.

The report highlights two of these cases. In one case described as “disturbing,” the report found that an academic program had “a history of refusing to make all but the most minimal accommodations, even after many meetings with disability and legal experts within the University, and instead encouraged the students to withdraw from the program.”

It describes one student affected by this, who knew that he could have gone to the Ontario Ombudsman or the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal but ultimately withdrew from the program.

According to the report, this was in violation of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate, which both prohibit discrimination based on disability.

“We do not know how many other students within this academic unit or across the University withdrew for similar reasons, but had not contacted the Office,” a portion of the report reads.

The academic program implicated is not named in the report and it is unclear if the case has been closed.

In another “equally disturbing” case, the report describes situations in professional programs where there were “excessive accommodations to students whose clinical work or behaviour during the program had already posed risks to her/his peers and after graduation could pose serious risk to vulnerable clients,” while ignoring university policies and regulations. No further details were provided in the report.

The report’s recommendations focus solely on the university’s handling of mental health accommodations and communication. On the communications side, the report recommends that the university provide an annual update to Governing Council on how it is implementing the recommendations.

For mental health, the first recommendation calls on the university to develop a plan “to assist academic units in accommodating student mental health needs.”

The report’s second recommendation calls for a consistent application of the university’s guidelines and regulations where exceptions to such policies should not be the norm, drawing attention to the case where policies on leaves of absence and extensions were not strictly adhered to.

For all new program proposals received by the Governing Council’s Committee on Academic Policies and Programs and reviews of existing programs, the report recommends that the university require “a section on accessibility and accommodation.” It also calls for programs that refuse the recommended accommodations to be given clear guidelines on how to appeal or make the necessary changes.

The final mental health-related recommendation concerns professional programs that prepare students for clinical work. It calls for guidelines for these programs on how to deal with “students with mental health issues which create the potential for harm to the wider community.” The report says that the guidelines should balance the rights of students and “the need to protect the wider community(ies),” citing a “special ethical obligation to protect the public.”

The university has issued an official administrative response to the Ombudsperson’s report, where it accepts all of the recommendations regarding mental health.

In its response, the university noted that the Vice-President and Provost struck a working group “to identify procedures and best practices for student accommodations in cohort-based and lock-step programs.”

“The university’s working group has been actually working on this prior to the Ombudsperson’s recommendation,” U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans told The Varsity. “They were working on this stuff already and as you can see in the university’s response, they’ve outlined each recommendation and what their response is to their recommendation and many of those are the one that the working group is already looking at.”

The university also wrote that the University of Toronto Student Mental Health Strategy and Framework, which was adopted in 2014, will be subject to review this year.

With regards to the specific observations that the Ombudperson described as “disturbing,” Blackburn-Evans would not comment on what academic programs or faculties were implicated in these cases or whether these specific issues have been resolved.

“I can’t speak about individual cases but I can say that the university always tries to find a balance between supporting our students and any health and safety concerns for the community,” she said.