Op-ed: Mandated leave policy not disciplinary in name, yet disciplinary in consequence

A critical response to supporters of the recently passed mandated leave of absence policy

Op-ed: Mandated leave policy not disciplinary in name, yet disciplinary in consequence

Last month, the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) was approved by Governing Council. The near-unanimous vote demonstrates that Governing Council appears to have minimal-to-no qualms about what the UMLAP entails. I, however, still have many.

The recent pro-UMLAP op-ed published in The Varsity argues that the UMLAP is better than the status quo. However, it is important to interrogate how and for whom. In response to much abstract discussion of the policy thus far, I want to break down exactly what the now-approved policy can mean for students moving forward.

Code of Conduct versus UMLAP: a false dilemma

An essential argument made in favour of the UMLAP is that it is better than the prior method of dealing with students with serious mental health issues. Before the UMLAP took effect on June 27, 2018, the university would apply the existing Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters and Code of Student Conduct.

The Code of Student Conduct and its associated sanctions were applied to students who would pose a risk to themselves or others in the community due to mental health reasons. These sanctions included formal written reprimand, denial of access to university services, suspension, and expulsion. The latter two entailed notations on the academic transcripts of the student.

Yet in practice for instances in which mental health factors were suspected, the university would allow for alternative accommodations to the use of disciplinary Code of Student Conduct proceedings. And if the accommodations were unsuccessful including the possibility of the student not consenting to adhere to them the university could exclude a person from campus as per Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). All of this was happening before the UMLAP was even drafted.

With such course of action, you can imagine the university’s governance dilemma: they have the Code of Student Conduct providing alternatives in cases of students with serious mental health issues because they realize the injustice of penalizing such students through sanctions. And one of the alternatives is to exclude them from campus to protect the rest of the university community in accordance with their obligations to OHSA.  

However, this type of exclusion is not defined in any university policy, and hence has the potential to still be defined as “disciplinary” under the disciplinary Code of Student Conduct proceeding, and occur in the form of suspension or expulsion. The rationale for UMLAP arose from the need for the university administrative system to have a specific process in place for dealing with students with serious mental health issues who came into contact with the Code of Student Conduct.

The pro-UMLAP op-ed applauds the university for taking a non-disciplinary approach to matters that were being handled under the disciplinary codes beforehand. I take issue with the argument that the non-disciplinary UMLAP is better than the prior disciplinary code. The UMLAP essentially legitimizes the university’s informal action of removing students from campus under the alternative process to the Code of Student Conduct.

First of all, the passing of the UMLAP does not preclude the university’s ability to apply the other Governing Council policies, including the Code of Student Conduct it says so right in the UMLAP itself. In fact, both policies could be applied against the student if the administration desired. We as students have no reason to believe the university would not do this.

The point of greater concern, however, is the additional powers the UMLAP gives to administrative bodies. In regard to the use of the Code of Student Conduct, the Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–2015 noted her issue with the internal procedure, stating that she was “particularly interested in how things are done when students exercise their option of rejecting a course of action or conditions on their attendance proposed by an administrator.” This report is cited as inspiration for the UMLAP.

The report reveals that a possible alternative accommodation being offered to students may have been a voluntary leave of absence. Furthermore, in an instance where a student was rejecting this voluntary leave, the university would attempt to or be successful in excluding them off the campus by invoking provincial statutory law. This underscores the university’s specific concern with the exercise of consent by the student under question.

The UMLAP gives the university the ability to force a student to take a leave of absence, which was previously only being utilized given the limbo between the university’s Code of Student Conduct and the OHSA. This is not improvement. Rather, it expands the university’s administrative power at the expense of eroding students’ dignity and autonomy.

The scope of the UMLAP does not only catch those students against whom the Code of Student Conduct was being used — which is now under Scenario 1 of the UMLAP  but now also those students who are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education.”

The pro-UMLAP op-ed mentions that the UMLAP sought to “redefine the scope” of the university’s power to remove students from the campus. While this is true, its scope isn’t reduced, but rather broadened, such that the university could apply the UMLAP to more students than it could have with the prior codes. Contrary to the op-ed’s argument, the university then effectively does have a new, explicitly stated, right to remove students, and this is an immense cause for concern.

Do not assume that my argument against the UMLAP is an endorsement for the Code of Student Conduct process. The code is the wrong policy to invoke; however, that does not mean we must tacitly endorse any new policy that replicates the same actions taken under the code, as most of Governing Council recently did. In presenting the UMLAP in its current form as the only salvation the university had from the Code of Student Conduct process on June 27, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr did the university governors a great injustice in order to secure greater control for the administration.  

A zero-sum equation: the university gains control by taking it away from students

Students’ consent in the UMLAP is honoured insofar as a given student agrees to accommodations. However, this is not meaningful consent. If the exercise of your consent can result in the removal of it, then you don’t really have a choice.

If you have any experience in dealing with students in a disciplinary proceeding, then you know mental health is a recurring factor. Last year, I sat on the Arts & Science Council’s Academic Appeals Board, through which I heard many student appeals.

I came across students who were under academic suspension from the Faculty of Arts & Science, who would bring up mental health in their appeals. Yet most often, the core issue was not that mental health was a factor in their inability to continue school, but rather that the lack of support from the university’s bureaucratic system had ensued in a snowballing loss of control, which then contributed to students’ inability to succeed as per the university’s requirements.

At its foundation, the university is an inaccessible system, especially for students with disabilities and accessibility needs. The students I saw on the Academic Appeals Board would have passed the threshold for invoking the UMLAP, which encompasses demonstrating “behaviour where the normal application of academic sanctions (including the possibility of failure in a course, petitions and appeals, etc.) is appropriate and sufficient.”

Many of these students had to seek resources outside of the university before and after the sanctions were applied, and now they had the onus of proving to the Academic Appeals Board why they deserved to have their sanctions, which were unjustly placed because of the university’s disregard of mental health factors, lifted.

The students placed on forced leave under the UMLAP will have to go through the same process. However, under the previous disciplinary process, mental health was not being considered and hence the sanctions were an injustice. This allowed for mental health reasons to be brought up as evidence for appeal. Now, under the non-disciplinary policy, mental health is explicitly considered, such that mental health reasons are weaponized to exclude students from campus in the first place.

Imagine what the appeals framework could now look like with this policy in effect. Prior to the UMLAP, any proceedings under the Code of Student Conduct for students with serious mental health-related issues could be appealed under the Disciplinary Appeals Board at Governing Council.

The decision of the Vice-Provost Students under the UMLAP can still be appealed under the Disciplinary Appeals Board. However, when before the university would have had to rely on reading into the OHSA to exclude students from campus, now they have explicit written power to force students from campus and justify their actions. It makes student appeals against forced exclusion from campus more difficult to win, while their material conditions for the appeals may remain the same.

The UMLAP not only disregards students’ consent and autonomy, but provides the university with more control over the student already grieving a loss of control due to inadequate support in the first place. The loss of control is a core issue for students who face numerous simultaneous and intersecting challenges every day, not limited to financial ability, housing situations, immigration status, and mental health.

Disregarding their consent and imposing a leave of absence will not resolve any issue for the student, but perpetuate it further. This only resolves the issue for the university, which can now invoke the UMLAP as a short-term solution for students instead of investing in long-term improvements of the inadequate mental health support infrastructure currently in place on campus.

With these consequences in mind, students might be less likely to approach university administrators or services in seek of support, given that the UMLAP has the scope to encompass a greater proportion of students with mental health related issues and expose them to the possibility of mandated leave amidst inadequate health and wellness supports.

The list of concerns has no end

Opponents of the policy, including many student representatives, have brought up countless issues with the UMLAP, including demands for further thorough student consultations. Concerns include the UMLAP’s general disregard for addressing the campus mental health crisis at its core, the university’s reluctance to redirect efforts to improving accessibility and support services, and the question of who will determine if mental health reasons are present, and if they have any expertise in making such determinations.

Opponents of the UMLAP have also rightly been critical of the university’s role in being a factor to triggering mental health issues that the UMLAP does not even dare to address.

These concerns were brought in the lead up to and at the Governing Council meeting on June 27. The proponents of the UMLAP chose to cite the pro-UMLAP op-ed as proof of student support during the meeting instead. This selective use student evidence by administration if nothing else is a case in point of the university administration’s lack of meaningful student consultation.

In addition to my concerns with the UMLAP’s overbreadth, disrespect of student autonomy, and general student opposition, there are still many material questions to be answered: the impact of the UMLAP on students’ transcripts and graduate school prospects; the relationship between differential access to mental health support resources due to varying college  memberships and the probability of the invocation of the UMLAP; and the complexity of tuition and fee reimbursements, especially for international students, when the UMLAP is applied. These problems existed under the use of the Code of Student Conduct and the UMLAP provides us no guarantee that they will not continue to exist.

The UMLAP begets more questions than it answers, and the lack of guidelines only multiply the undue stress on students dealing with an already-inaccessible system. Let us remember that mental health in the policy is very context-dependent. The policy is invoked if a Division Head comes to know about a student who meets the threshold. Given that there is a great lack in adequate accommodations within the university structure, the likelihood of students coming into contact with the UMLAP is high.  

Despite all of these concerns, we are left with the fact that the UMLAP is indeed in effect. Our next step as students and members of the U of T community is to keep a watchful eye on the administration and ensure that they do not abuse the UMLAP in the many ways that they now have sanctioned power to do.

Priyanka Sharma is an incoming master’s student at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies. She was the 20172018 President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.

Why I didn’t root for Russia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Separating culture from nationalism in the age of Russian belligerence

Why I didn’t root for Russia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Though I have lived in Canada for almost my entire life, I am Russian*: My parents were both born in the Soviet Union, I have relatives all over Russia, I speak Russian, and I celebrate Russian holidays and celebrations.

But I cannot bear to call myself a Russian. Particularly, I could not allow myself to root for Russia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Recently eliminated from the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the Russian national football team brought pride to over 100 million Russians and 600,000 Russian-Canadians for its heroic performance, doubling as both host nation and underdog.

Yet I could not stop supporting the host’s opponents. I cheered for Saudi Arabia and Egypt when they faced Russia in the group stage, although both lost. It was not until Uruguay handed Russia a 3–0 loss that my ‘unpatriotic’ stance was finally rewarded.

This wasn’t enough, as Russia made it out of the group stage to ultimately upset Spain in a penalty shootout. The win shocked football fans all over the world, but devastated me as if I were a die-hard Spaniard. In what ended up being Russia’s final match at the World Cup, I cheered endlessly for 120 minutes and into another penalty shootout for the Croatian team, when I finally got to witness Russia’s elimination.

I am grateful to live in Toronto and attend the University of Toronto, where I am able to engage with a culturally diverse population including a large group of Russian-Canadians. However, many have been confused as to why I would root against my own country, and many have told me that my actions are a betrayal to my very bloodline. But I have my reasons.

Russia is a country of historic greatness. It is the winner of the second World War, victor of space races, and builder of a great republic. Russia’s greatest achievement may be its ability to resist and challenge Western society and the United States.

Today, there is no urgency to send humans into space. But the Russian government still attempts to relive the glory days of the Soviet Union — dare I say, it wants to make Russia great again — and this has dire consequences.

My decision to distance myself from my Russian identity occurred in 2014. Russia had illegally intervened in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where I have family. Eventually, the Russian government annexed Crimea from Ukraine in an allegedly illegal and fraudulent election.

This act of modern imperialism and apparent disregard for international law demonstrates how far Russia and its leaders are willing to go to reclaim their country’s place on the international stage. This has led to a divide between Ukraine’s western and eastern territories and a war in the Ukrainian region of Donbass. The war, which has been fought since April 2014, has claimed tens of thousands of lives.  

As the world continues to evolve, it becomes more and more evident that Russia is stuck in the past. While the world becomes more diverse and inclusive, many regions and citizens of Russia still hold homophobic, racist, and misogynist beliefs. Like the Soviet Union which preceded it, Russia continues to promote the idea of unity against the outside world to its citizens — specifically against the liberalism of the West.

This early twentieth century mindset has seen little improvement. In fact, much evidence has shown that Russia and its citizens are becoming more homophobic and more racist. According to Pew Research, 74 per cent of Russians believed that homosexuality is socially wrong in 2013, up from 60 per cent in 2002. Another study found that in 1998, only 45 per cent of citizens believed in a “Russia for Russians” ideology, which increased to 55 per cent in 2011.

I pride myself knowing that I’ve been able to meet and befriend people from all walks of life at U of T. But I cannot help thinking that a majority of them would be unwelcome in Russia simply because of their sexual identity, race, or religion.  

On top of politics, the Russian doping scandal, which saw the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspend the Russian Olympic Committee and ban many Russian athletes from the 2016 Summer and 2018 Winter Olympics, is an example of Russia’s attempt to achieve the historic Olympic success of the Soviet Union.

According to many reports, there were strong allegations of officials recommending and demanding that athletes participate in state-sponsored doping programs. The ban and the stripping of many medals proved that the IOC would not stand for cheaters and neither will I.

Adding to the list are countless other ways Russia remains untrustworthy, such as allegations of illegal elections in the country, lack of support for environmental protection, and the country’s possible role in interfering with the United States’ presidential election. Every win for Russia is a win against unity, against diversity, and against peace.  

While Russia continues to strive for ‘glory,’ I will continue to separate my national identity from the culture I follow. I cannot stand by a country that promotes human division as an element to achieve success.

I cannot use my culture as an excuse to support the Russian national team. These athletes have made the choice to represent their country, even under its current regime. Every minute of every game that these men were on the field of the World Cup, they must have known that they represent their country, and that their country also represents them. They promoted the ideologies of today’s Russia – even if they did not know it themselves.

On the other hand, culture is for the most part unconnected from modern politics, as it has been passed down through generations. While I cannot change the fact that I have Russian blood coursing through my veins, I can pursue an identity that acknowledges both my family’s roots and culture, and my personal protest against the nation I call the motherland.

So I am Russian*. The asterisk will continue to denote my separation from personal national identification.

George Moshenski-Dubov is a fourth-year Criminology and Sociology student at Woodsworth College.

Ready or not, here comes course selection

Three students reflect on their course selection experiences at U of T

Ready or not, here comes course selection

With course enrolment start times taking place across dates in July, three students reflect on their past experiences and provide tips to upcoming course selectors. They discuss the difficulty of choosing a few courses from hundreds of options, the importance of considering the availability of space, and the challenges that come with balancing the course load with part-time work.

Narrowing down courses

U of T has so many great courses to choose from that perhaps too much choice becomes a burden. Of course, the most basic priority of us as students must be to fulfill program requirements which can fill most of our limited five to six credits per semester. Programs of Study (POSt) are meant to help you narrow down your studies so you can hone in on what you’re really passionate about, but even then some are far too varied or even too specific.

Take Global Health, for example: how is one to choose between studying world hunger, the effect of AIDS, and the history of dentistry? Even within a single program, it seems like there could be courses made about any individual topic, rendering it even more difficult to make the choices needed to fill our POSt.

On top of that, we need to somehow balance other personal interests and electives outside of our program. But how will we know what we’re passionate about if we don’t take the leap to explore entirely new topics? However, this is only idealistic thinking; with five to six courses to balance, it can be hard to keep up your GPA too. It is difficult to decide whether pursuing a course out of interest would really be preferable to a ‘bird’ course that could save your GPA, especially when paired with more difficult courses to fulfill your POSt.

You could always try taking six courses to maximize the learning experiences you could get from what U of T has to offer in lectures, if you’re really sure that you could handle the course load. Even just being on the waiting list of a sixth course warrants your college registrar dropping you an email to make sure you really thought this through. In any case, choosing from hundreds of courses to narrow down to only a few makes course selection just that much harder.

Casey Qian is a second-year Global Health and Physiology student at Woodsworth College.

Considering space

Course selection every summer is a time of nervous breakdowns and sudden panics — that is, if you approach it without preparations. The worst case scenario is if you forget to enroll into the prerequisite courses you need for the upcoming semester to get into your desired program in the subsequent year. You are then left trying to convince the head of the course department to give you another chance to change your courses before your semester even starts.

However, do not worry: all you need to consider as you head toward course selection is the availability of space. Each course is given a finite amount of space for students in which to enroll. But keep in mind: different programs or majors of study have different entry time to ACORN for course enrolment. Hence, it is important to remember whether you have priority access to desired courses or have to be waitlisted instead.

To share my memory of this time, I was completely unprepared and unaware of what courses I needed for my first year, or what courses would be able to fit in to my schedule of pre-enrolled courses. In addition, I was also unaware of when my enrolment time began, so by the time I was able to access ACORN, most of my courses of interest were either full or nearly full. Ultimately, I had to switch out of three courses during my first week to courses that weren’t really necessary for my program, because the initial courses were either too tedious or difficult for me.

Overall, remember that each course has a different amount of enrolment space and that each field of study has different timelines to enter ACORN. Preparation and research are paramount, or else the courses that you may badly need will only be available to you the next year.

Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC.

Balancing school and work

Course selection for working students is like playing that Move the Block slide puzzle game — except winning means taking breadth courses you don’t have an interest in or cramming together awful work hours. The real kicker is when a tutorial or lecture time would work perfectly but is full.

Having a full course load and working two jobs, I’ve been fortunate that one allows me to work remotely most of the time. My bosses have deep empathy for students juggling multiple things at once, so when I drop the ball which is inevitable it’s not hard to pick it back up. But I know that other working students may not and do not have that privilege.

Unluckily, I’m also a commuter student and my commute is over two hours long, one way. In first year, I spent hours adding and deleting things from my enrolment cart, trying to craft the perfect schedule. This was before knowing what two-hour lectures and having to write countless papers in one week was like. Optimism got the best of me and I ended up taking three 9:00 am classes and missing half of them after midterms.

So, unless you’re super into an introduction to art history, maybe think twice. In retrospect, I’m glad that I learned that lesson in first year: summer optimism doesn’t translate well to the reality of the school year, and unless you absolutely have to, do not take a 9:00 am class.

Margaryta Ignatenko is a third-year Journalism student at UTSC.

Masters of our own design

A student’s perspective on the opportunities and risks of gene-editing

Masters of our own design

In 2012, the naturally occurring Cas9 enzyme was shown to be able to edit DNA sequences from a number of organisms by researchers at the Zhang Lab at MIT.

While this new powerful genetic editing tool holds great promise for treating an array of genetic disorders, such as HIV, cancers, and lesser known disorders like Duchenne muscular dystrophy; it also raises a number of ethical questions. When do we allow DNA editing in humans? To what extent will we allow for DNA editing to modify our genomes? Are we getting in the way of evolution, and what dangers could modifying our DNA bring about?  Most importantly, how will these changes to our genome get passed down to our offspring?

Due to these important and deeply controversial questions, scientists worldwide agreed to a moratorium on CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing research in humans. For now, scientists have agreed to allow for clinical gene-editing research in all human cells, but have banned research that edits the germline — a scientific term for the DNA that is passed on from parent to offspring.

There is merit to this stance. The state of CRISPR-Cas9 research is still in its infancy, and needs to be perfected before it can be used in human therapeutics, and must pass a number of tests before it can be used to edit the human germline. CRISPR-Cas9 is not the first technology capable of editing DNA — its predecessors were zinc finger nucleases and TALENs, among other technologies — but so far it is the most promising. That said, biological techniques are not foolproof, and the CRISPR-Cas9 is not immune to off-target effects in the genome.

To put this in perspective, imagine that someone designs a computer program to edit the operating system on your computer. The program used is usually effective and edits the code it intends to. Although every once in a while, it modifies the code of something you need to function (for instance, Microsoft Word). But unlike a computer program or operating system, we cannot simply uninstall and then reinstall the program with the defective code. Instead, we are stuck with something dysfunctional, and the possibility that the defective code will actually interfere with other things that previously were working. To extend the analogy now, we’re left with a computer that cannot do basic word processing, and, scariest of all, cannot be fixed. To make matters worse, off-target effects in germline editing will likely be permanent not only in a single generation, but for generations to come.

The difficulty with CRISPR-Cas9 is that it holds so much promise, that researchers around the world are all racing to incorporate the technology into their work. As this race gets more competitive, the likelihood that someone will attempt something dangerous in the process of conducting ground breaking research increases. Thus the ban on germline editing.

Although CRISPR-Cas9 is possibly very dangerous, research cannot and should not be stopped. If we’re able to solve some of humanity’s most pressing concerns, such as HIV/AIDS, then we have a moral obligation to try. For that reason, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system might be the latest biomedical advancement to offer serious hope to millions. As long as scientists worldwide ensure that they conduct their research with caution and within certain limits, gene-editing research will be able to make significant advancements safely.

Recently, The Varsity had a chance to attend a discussion with Dr. Feng Zhang of the Zhang Lab, hosted by the Neuroscience Association for Undergraduate Students.

At the event, one student asked, the researcher about his opinion on using the CRISPR-Cas9 system to edit the germline. Dr. Zhang replied, stating that the importance of germline editing varies between groups of people, such as potential parents and policy-makers. As a researcher, he suggested that “we are not ready to use this  [CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing] for medical treatment, because there are issues with specificity and efficiency,” citing the possibility of off-target effects. He highlighted the possibility of off-target effects causing other disorders, like cancer.

While the CRISPR-Cas9 system is undoubtedly one of the greatest biomedical breakthroughs of the past fifty years, if not the past century, it is not ready for public consumption. While nearly everyone wants this technology to be perfected, it cannot and should not be used until it is. When that day comes, the possibilities for treating disease and improving lives will be endless. It is for that reason, that CRISPR-Cas9 and gene-editing research needs to keep moving at its current pace, while being constrained by a few necessary rules.