U of T campus groups call for ombudsperson’s public apology

University-mandated leave of absence policy at the crux of backlash

U of T campus groups call for ombudsperson’s public apology

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Following a contentious Governing Council meeting on October 24, U of T student groups have released strong condemnations of U of T Ombudsperson Dr. Ellen Hodnett’s remarks on mental health activism. The student groups criticize Hodnett’s expressed support for the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) as well as her comment that activists have unfairly used recent apparent suicides on campus to criticize the policy.

The comments have prompted the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the U of T Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), a newly created advocacy group, to call for Hodnett’s public apology and open discussions on her removal.

Background on the UMLAP

The issue arose when Hodnett presented her report on the UMLAP. The controversial policy, approved in June 2018, allows the university to place students on a leave of absence if they exhibit severe mental health problems that the university feels pose a potential risk of serious harm to themselves or others. The policy is only meant to be used after all other accommodations have been exhausted.

The UMLAP was passed amidst fierce opposition from students and has been the subject of continued criticism. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released an open letter in the run up to the policy’s approval, expressing its concern about how the UMLAP could “result in discrimination on the basis of mental health disability contrary to the Human Rights Code.” The policy was revised after the OHRC’s letter but students remained firmly in opposition.

This policy was specifically recommended by the Office of the Ombudsperson. In her role, Hodnett reviews university mandated leave cases.

Hodnett’s report

Hodnett addressed the Governing Council following statements on campus mental health from student representatives. She expressed how proud she was of the UMLAP, saying that it provides “extreme care, diligence, respectfulness, and compassion” to the students whose cases have been reviewed under the policy.

She maintained that the policy is evidence-based and fair, in opposition to the continuing resistance toward the policy, which she asserts is based on misinformation.

In an email to The Varsity, Hodnett specified that she sees this misinformation being widely circulated via social media. Her concern is that students will be deterred from seeking help under the UMLAP due to its widespread online criticism and encourages “everyone to actually read the Policy.”

During the Governing Council meeting, the comment that perhaps drew the most ire from students was Hodnett’s claim that recent campus deaths have been used as a “vehicle to link students’ purported fears of seeking mental health services with the mandated leave policy.”

Online statements

Immediately following the Governing Council meeting, the UTSU released a statement criticizing Hodnett’s remarks, followed closely by a statement published by the MHPC in solidarity. Both called on Hodnett to issue a public apology.

The UTSU condemned Hodnett’s comments for being “offensive” and “belittling.” It sees this as an example of the university administration not listening to its student body.

In a direct address to Hodnett, the UTSU wrote, “The fact that you told those at this meeting that you are ‘proud’ to be part of a policy that has been criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission and has served as an active detriment to students seeking mental health support on this campus, speaks volumes about your views on listening to us.”

The MHPC, in its statement, found Hodnett’s comments to be delegitimizing for students with mental illness and their lived experiences. They see the UMLAP as institutionalizing “U of T’s right to force a student experiencing mental illness to lose their student status, services, and housing.”

Campus groups speak out

UTSU President Joshua Bowman and other members of the UTSU said that they were so appalled by what they heard from Hodnett that they began writing their online statement during that very meeting.

In a written statement to The Varsity, Bowman went on to laud the efforts of student activists in fighting for better mental health services and found Hodnett’s remarks to be disparaging against the good work that has been put into advocating for support from the university.

“There is a mental health crisis on our campus and the fact that Dr. Hodnett stated that students grieving the loss of a classmate and community member are doing so in a politically motivated manner against UMLAP is a testament to the dispassionate nature of our university.”

Bowman’s disappointment isn’t solely reserved for Hodnett. He claimed that other meeting attendees, including some in administrative positions, were smirking and dismissive of the statements presented by student representatives at the beginning of the council meeting.

The UTSU’s official position on the UMLAP is that it is a damaging policy. In response to Hodnett’s claim that students have created a culture of fear surrounding the policy, Bowman instead posits that the fear on campus comes from the policy itself.

He claims that this fear is “perpetuated by a policy that saw little to no student consultation and ultimately makes students scared to go to Health and Wellness to seek the care they require.”

In addition to calling for an apology, Bowman wouldn’t find it unreasonable for the university to look into whether Hodnett is suited to her role as ombudsperson in light of her comments.

The MHPC took issue with Hodnett’s statements in part due to her role of ombudsperson — an independent and impartial position meant to ensure that the rights of U of T community members are protected.

“Hodnett’s annual report accuses dedicated mental health advocates on campus of spreading misinformation and intentionally exploiting recent student deaths — a partial and wildly insulting charge to level at the university’s students,” the MHPC wrote in an email to The Varsity.

For the MHPC, its top priority is “to see the UMLAP undergo a drastic rewrite or be repealed entirely.” It places high importance on ensuring that new policies are developed alongside students in order to “remove the structural and implicit barriers that prevent students from seeking help.”

University and Ombudsperson’s response

In a statement to The Varsity, Hodnett affirmed that she stands by her every word.

She wanted to remind members of the U of T community that “the Policy went through extensive consultations and was approved at every level of governance, with active involvement by students throughout, before it was implemented.”

Even though students were consulted throughout the approval process, opposition to the policy contends that this consultation was not meaningful. Indeed, students had criticized the timing and accessibility of the consultations in the lead-up to the policy’s approval one year ago.

Doubling down on the comments made during the Governing Council meeting, Hodnett claims that there is no evidence that the UMLAP is a harmful policy. In fact, she says there is evidence to the contrary — and that the UMLAP is doing “just what it was intended to do.”

According to U of T, the policy has been used eight times in the last year and the university says that in “almost all of the cases” the student affected by the policy has returned or is in the process of returning to classes.

However, it has acknowledged that considerable concern exists regarding the policy.

“We’ve heard students’ concerns that the policy could discourage individuals from using the supports available through the university and we are working to counter the perception that seeking mental health support will somehow trigger the leave process.”

It reiterated that the policy is only meant to be used when other accommodations have been found to be unsuccessful. The university claims that, “this policy is not intended to be punitive, and our experience with the policy demonstrates that.”

Ombudsperson’s office expanded to all campuses in hopes of growing outreach

Office helps resolve university-related issues, addresses system problems

Ombudsperson’s office expanded to all campuses in hopes of growing outreach

After over 40 years servicing UTSG, the Office of the Ombudsperson has expanded to place officers on all three campuses, following a vote by Governing Council in May. The expansion was done in the hopes that it would increase awareness of the Office’s existence and assist in outreach, according to Ellen Hodnett, the recently re-appointed U of T Ombudsperson.

The Office of the Ombudsperson was founded in 1975 and acts as an independent body to help faculty, staff, students, and alumni resolve university-related issues and brings forward broader systemic problems to Governing Council.

Hodnett describes the position as largely about directing people to the correct resource. In the past, the Ombudsperson’s report to Governing Council proposed the contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy.

In an interview with The Varsity, Hodnett described a lack of engagement from the broader U of T community as motivation for the move. Despite efforts made through social media, Hodnett explained that “none of that made much of a difference at all.”

Hodnett was re-appointed to the ombudsperson position for an additional year after a three-year appointment ended last June.

“I’ve been at U of T since 1975 in one capacity or another, mostly as a professor, but also as a graduate student and now as ombudsperson,” Hodnett said. “I still find navigating all the various websites and finding out whom I should contact about a particular issue, a challenge.”

Hodnett and Secretary of the Governing Council Sheree Drummond decided to combine the roles of Assistant Secretary of Governing Council with Ombuds Officer — the positions are filled on the Campus Council at both UTM and UTSC.

“There’s no conflict of interest,” she said. “There’s no administrative connection here, so we can keep everything very confidential and within our office mandate.”

Rena Prashad is the Interim Director of Governance and Assistant Secretary of the Governing Council at UTSC. At UTM, Cindy Ferencz Hammond is the Director of Governance and Assistant Secretary of Governing Council. Both agreed to fill the Ombuds Officer role for the announced expansion and were trained by Hodnett for the position over the summer.

The appointment for UTSG took longer consideration. Hodnett explained that the job description had to be similar to those on the other campuses and also required looking through a number of applicants. In mid-November, Dr. Kristi Gourlay filled the position of Assistant Secretary of Governing Council and Ombuds Officer for UTSG. Gourlay is the former Manager of the Office of Student Academic Integrity.

On the topic of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, Hodnett confirmed that the annual review of the conditions under which the policy was applied will take place in coordination with her office.

“Our focus, as I said before, is unfairness,” she said. “We take that very, very seriously. I’ve written in previous annual reports [about] my awareness of the challenges posed by having the accessibility issues related to students with significant mental health problems. And there is no black and white here.”

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.