Opinion: U of T needs to address student opposition to the UMLAP

Lack of acknowledgement from administration is hurtful and dismissive

Opinion: U of T needs to address student opposition to the UMLAP

On October 24, students stood outside Simcoe Hall in solidarity as a Governing Council meeting took place inside. This was the second time since September that students gathered in response to the university’s continued lack of policy changes regarding mental health issues, both for student inclusiveness in decision-making processes and general disregard of student well-being on campus.

There is a lack of open communication between the student body and Governing Council. The valid concerns of students are not being addressed — and we have had enough.

Time and again, student organizations have tried to create an open dialogue with university administration. Following a year of mental health protests and discussions, student activists released a report titled “Nothing About Us Without Us.” The report is a well-researched and direct statement that highlights mental health resources that need improving, policies that need to be changed, as well as long and short-term recommendations to benefit student wellness.

As discussed at the rally in front of Simcoe Hall, the recommendations outlined in the report have not yet been adequately addressed, and the lack of action from administration has been interpreted as hurtful and dismissive. Students should have a say in the policies that affect them, and if the university continues to exclude students in these decisions it will only worsen the divide between administrators and the student body.

A poignant example of this is the highly contested university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which allows the administration to place students on a leave from their studies if their mental health is determined to pose a threat to themselves or others. Understandably, this policy was one of the main topics of discussion during the rally.

“Cut the crap, repeal UMLAP,” was the catchiest chant of the gathering.

Protestors were able to communicate with a few students who were attending the meeting inside. According to these students, the council reacted to these chants by saying that the opposition to the UMLAP was not backed with evidence. The university’s ombudsperson also recently doubled down on UMLAP, causing understandable backlash.

The UMLAP works reactively. The administration is shirking its responsibility to provide preventative mental health services and fix ineffective systems. This policy does little for students seeking help. If a student is forced to leave school, being left to fend for themselves can further harm their mental health and intensify suicidal thoughts.

This policy may claim to help students, but, as discussed at the rally, it only makes matters worse. Individuals are potentially less inclined to share their struggles with the university in fear of being placed on a mandated leave.

The UMLAP fails to effectively accommodate various student experiences, and students will continue to voice their concerns on this topic until a change is made.

The decisions made by Governing Council impact each and every person on campus, and the community that students have built around solidarity and genuine care for one another is inspiring and powerful. The university cannot ignore this resistance forever.

Sonia Uppal is a third-year Equity Studies student at St. Michael’s College.

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.”

U of T’s university-mandated leave of absence policy remains controversial a year after it was approved

Policy has been invoked eight times since its debut, says U of T

U of T’s university-mandated leave of absence policy remains controversial a year after it was approved

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide

Five months ago, approximately 100 students stood outside Simcoe Hall, the seat of the university’s power, to protest what they perceived to be the administration’s inaction in the face of a growing mental health crisis on campus. Only one day earlier, U of T confirmed that a student died in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, the site of another suicide the previous summer.

Although protestors gathered in silence, their message to administration officials was clear: despite having at least three known suicides in campus buildings in the past year, U of T has failed to take concrete action on the mental health crisis on campus.

An aspect of the students’ frustration with the administration is the highly controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy, which allows U of T to unilaterally place students on leave if their mental health either poses a dangerous physical risk to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies. It’s a hallmark of the university’s mental health framework. 

Despite heavy public opposition, Governing Council — the university’s highest decision-making body — passed the policy almost unanimously in June 2018, with only three out of over 40 governors voting against.

According to Sandy Welsh, U of T’s Vice-Provost, Students, the policy has been used eight times in the past year. Six of those cases “involved urgent situations such as death threats with plans including acquiring a weapon, physical attacks and persistent and concerning communications.”

While the other two cases also involved threats, “other systems and supports were in place such that the urgent situations clause did not need to be invoked,” Welsh wrote in an email to The Varsity in late July.

Welsh also noted that a medical professional was involved in all eight cases due to serious mental health issues among the students. When the policy debuted, many within the community took issue with the fact that nowhere in the policy were medical professionals required to be involved.

As it currently stands, the policy notes that medical professionals “may” be involved but does not explicitly make it a requirement.

According to Welsh, two of the eight students placed on leave returned to their studies within six weeks, with accommodations made. The university is working with three others so they can return in the fall. One student is still away, and the remaining two cases are “relatively recent,” she noted.

Welsh also wrote to The Varsity that feedback from the families and students involved in the policy has been positive, citing one family who was pleased with its application. “The family had thought that due to the student’s behaviour, their student would have been expelled,” she said. 

Upon its introduction to the public sphere in the fall of 2017, the policy drew condemnation from student groups who criticized what they saw as a lack of consultation with students. 

Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, noted that the initial draft of the policy raised several human rights concerns and fell “short of meeting the duty to accommodate.”

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), under then-president Mathias Memmel, initially backed the policy, noting that they were “impressed” by it. However, the UTSU later withdrew its support due to concerns over the apparent lack of consultations.

Speaking to Governing Council on June 25, a year after the policy was approved, U of T’s Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr noted that due to the generally good feedback on the policy, senior administration has no plans to modify the document. 

Regehr is scheduled to conduct a formal review of the policy in the 2020–2021 academic year.

However, student leaders continue to criticize the policy. Lucinda Qu and Kristen Zimmer, both prominent student activists, strongly rebuked the university’s existing mental health structures at a March Business Board meeting, the first governance meeting sinceafter the Bahen suicide.

Qu, one of the few students in the room, said that “the university is ignoring the needs of students in a blatant attempt to take the onus off of its administration for our mental health, safety, and well-being.”

“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 is life-threatening,” Zimmer said at the same meeting.

Joshua Bowman, President of the UTSU and the organization’s third chief executive since the policy was first introduced, wrote to The Varsity, expressing that the document gives the administration “too much discretionary power” to place students on leave.

Bowman also noted that the policy “is a reflection of the administration’s desire to remedy the mental health crisis from their perspective of the situation,” and that it was not “born out of consultation with students.”

“The reality is that we are experiencing a mental health crisis on campus,” he wrote.

Despite repeated calls from the student body to stop using the policy, even amid the formation of a dedicated mental health task force last spring, U of T is remaining steadfast in keeping it. 

“What we can do and will continue to do is work with our community partners to provide every opportunity for our students to seek the kinds of service and supports they require,” Welsh wrote.

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.