On September 23, the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) hosted its first town hall meeting of the fall session to review the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy. The meeting was led by Professor Donald Ainslie, who is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at U of T, and Varsha Patel, Assistant Dean of Student Success and Career Support at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
First introduced in June 2018, the policy was drafted to support students that struggle with their academics and mental health. It provides students with the option of taking a temporary leave of absence from their studies to focus on their mental health. As described in their revised version, the policy also encourages students to seek assistance and support in a non-punitive manner—meaning no student will be disciplined for exercising their options.
During the town hall meeting, members were concerned whether students might perceive this policy as a “potential barrier to students seeking mental health services.” The Report of the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health addresses this in Recommendation 18 of the report. It advises that the university should take a more “comprehensive educational” approach, so students are shown that the policy acts as a support mechanism rather than a means for students to take a leave of absence whenever they seek medical care.
Professor Ainslie mentions his past experiences with students and states, “there were a handful of cases, I’m really talking a handful, very small number [of] cases each year where a student was engaging in disruptive behaviour related to their health, even when the university was offering as many accommodated supports as they could.”
There are two scenarios in which a student might fall within this policy. The first is if a student’s behaviour poses a risk of physical or psychological harm to themselves or others, and the second is for students who refuse support but have caused issues in the past.
Ainslie mentions that the Code of Student Conduct deals with disruptive behaviour through a disciplinary approach. He goes on to say, “what was happening before the passage of this policy is that students were being brought charges through the Code of Student Conduct in cases where the behaviour was the result of serious mental health crisis and I think everyone more or less recognized that discipline was not really the right approach here.”
In the process of formulating the policy, the university looked at other schools where students experienced the same types of challenges to consider all perspectives. Professor Ainslie also highlights that the university consulted with student governors and student unions to decide how the policy should be approached.
Professor Ainslie says the policy will continue to focus on the students and will ensure maximum academic success despite arising challenges. Furthermore, this mandated leave-of-absence policy is only used as a “last resource” for serious extenuating circumstances.
“[If] a student continues to engage in problematic behaviour, the accommodations don’t seem to be working, and the student doesn’t offer voluntary leave then there’s a move towards the possibility of a mandate of leave.”
This will enable UTM to place students on a temporary leave but prior to that, consultations with the student’s support team must be adhered to.
The policy will also ensure that the university will follow certain terms and conditions for students who face voluntary or involuntary leave from their academics. This includes tuition refunds, continuous access to health and wellness services, health benefits, and any other needs that would benefit the student’s academic goals.
Students, faculty, and librarians are encouraged to review and provide feedback on the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy via a feedback form. This will enable UTM to determine how to improve and invoke student’s needs in the policy if necessary.
The next virtual Town Hall Meeting is scheduled for October 5 when the faculty will review the policy again.