On Friday, March 19, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) sent out an open letter to Professor Donald Ainslie, the head of the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) Review Group. The letter requested the review timeline of the policy be pushed to Fall 2021 to increase student participation in the process and produce an accurate analysis of the UMLAP.
The joint letter was sent in collaboration with the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), and the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students at U of T (APUS).
The UMLAP was approved on June 27, 2018, after it was withdrawn in January following a suggestion by Renu Mandhane, the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission at the time. Mandhane argued that the policy stigmatized students’ mental health issues and was “concerned that the policy does not strike an appropriate balance.”
This policy states that a student struggling with mental health issues that are negatively impacting their academic record and refuses to take a voluntary leave of absence can be forced to leave by the university.
The 2018 UMLAP policy report stated that the policy would only be invoked when a disciplinary response under the U of T Code of Student Conduct is not appropriate and would only damage the student’s academic career.
“It may not be consistent with the duty to accommodate to merely let the student confront significant negative academic consequences in these situations,” read the report. “This Policy, therefore, sets out additional options to better reflect the needs and the situation of the student.”
The UMLAP was faced with criticism and resistance by U of T students and staff following its approval.
On October 2, 2019, Natalia Espinosa, a third-year anthropology student at UTM, was handcuffed at the Health and Counselling Centre while seeking professional mental health assistance. After Espinosa’s story was published, more than 130 students and staff came together and wrote an open letter to the university administration regarding the shortcomings of mental health support at U of T.
The letter demanded the university issue an apology to Espinosa and remove the protocol of handcuffing students experiencing a mental health crisis. Moreover, students and staff requested that the UMLAP be repealed.
On January 15, 2020, the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health published its report with 21 recommendations to the university regarding improvements to the mental health services available to U of T students.
One of the recommendations made by the task force suggested that an in-depth examination be made of the UMLAP and its potential impacts. Following the task force’s report, the university stated that they would adhere to all of the recommendations, including reviewing the UMLAP.
The review process is scheduled to conclude at the end of the Winter 2021 semester; however, many students believe that the review deadline should be extended. The joint letter by the students’ unions argues that the circumstances of the current academic year, due to the global pandemic, obstructed the review group’s ability to construct a sufficient analysis of the policy’s impact on students.
“The current review process for the UMLAP places consultations during one of the busiest times of the academic year,” stated the letter. “As global citizens, we are collectively experiencing and trying to navigate ongoing trauma brought on by the pandemic but also the rise of inequities, social injustice, hate crimes, and deteriorating mental health. Issues such as time zone differences, access to internet and technology, as well as simply coping and managing during the pandemic make engaging with the review process even more complex.”
The letter went on to request that the UMLAP review process should be pushed to the Fall 2021 semester, stating that the new deadline would allow more students to engage with the review and voice their opinions.
“Students across all three campuses, regardless of their year of study program or degree, have voiced concerns about the punitive nature of the UMLAP,” continued the letter. “Since policy reviews occur only every three years, we believe that more time should be devoted to meaningful consultations in order to effectively incorporate student feedback.”
The letter acknowledged the physical and emotional struggles students have been facing during the pandemic and stated that if the university agreed to delay the review process, the Governing Council would receive the report in February 2022 at the latest.“As organizations who are committed to supporting students and their well-being, we hope this extension will be welcomed in light of the ongoing difficulties students are experiencing from around the world,” read the letter. “Students are just trying to survive