Ultra Vires


Why Students Should Care About the University Mandated Leave of Absence Policy

UMLAP is up for review next year and consultations are now open to hear feedback from students 

Content Warning: discussion of suicide and mental illness 

UMLAP Up For Review This Academic Year

The University Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) is up for review in “Cycle 3” of this academic year (Winter 2022). 

Under UMLAP, the University can mandate leaves where the student “poses a risk of harm to self or others” and where mental health issues are involved. The University can also mandate a leave for a student who is “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education” after receiving accommodations. UMLAP applies to full and part-time students who have either declined accommodations or where accommodations have not been successful.

The University has begun conducting campus consultations, and all members of the University community, with UTORids, can submit feedback through the website or virtually through two Town Halls. The first Town Hall was on September 23, but the second is taking place Tuesday, October 5 (4:00pm–5:30pm). Registration for the October Town Hall closes at 9:00am on October 5. 

After this year, reviews of the policy will be at the discretion of the Governing Council, meaning this could be the final chance for students to contest the policy. It is integral that students, particularly  students at the Faculty of Law, get involved at this stage. 

Outside the Governing Council Chambers in Simcoe Hall. Credit: Shae Rothery

History of UMLAP

UMLAP was a response to the University Ombudsperson’s report from 2014-2015, which identified the widespread lack of accommodations for students with disabilities. It called for a non-coercive and cooperative policy to address cases on campus where mental illness may have been an issue. 

UMLAP was originally due for approval at the Governing Council in January 2018. In response, the Ontario Human Rights Commission drafted a letter citing concerns that UMLAP may violate its policies on discrimination and stigmatized students with mental illness. UMLAP was approved in June 2018.

Between 2017 and 2019, contemporaneous events created a context where UMLAP became understood as a way for the University to shirk its obligations towards students in crisis. During this time, student advocacy for better health care was intensified, especially after each of at least three confirmed campus suicides: one during 2018 and two during 2019.

Before its approval in June 2018, student groups, including the Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) and the Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) voiced strong objections to UMLAP, arguing that it “continues to undermine the autonomy and agency of students.” The Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 (CUPE3902), representing contract academic workers at the University, also wrote to the administration in opposition of the policy. In February 2019, members of student groups vocalized disapproval of UMLAP at the October Governing Council meeting.

The administration responded in March 2019, citing budgetary concerns as barriers to providing mental health care services. Only after the handcuffing incident at UTM in October 2019, and two faculty members’ objections to the treatment of students with mental illness, did the University create a “Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.” The Task Force released their report in December 2019.

It was in this context that the University enacted UMLAP and, between 2018 and 2021, placed 9 students on a combination of both mandated and voluntary leaves. 

Concerns About UMLAP

While these numbers may seem low, students’ concerns are two-fold. First, the UMLAP process is coercive and places a greater burden on students to comply with the administration than it does on the University to accommodate students with disabilities. Second, the punitive consequences of a leave creates a chilling effect, which prevents students from seeking mental health care for fear that a mandated leave will be imposed.

A student is already in crisis when engaged in the UMLAP process. Even before the administration notifies the student, they will have already compiled a “Student Support Team” (SST), which does not include the students’ own care providers. Through the process, the student can provide information to the SST which can then be considered.

Students are likely unfamiliar with legal processes and human rights law, and are unrepresented by legal counsel — aside from private legal representation, students may only retain Downtown Legal Services at the final stage of appeal. In this context, they must appeal a mandated leave to the Provost in 10 business days, and to the Chair of the Discipline Appeals Board in 20 business days.

UMLAP also does not specify re-entry conditions, which can include limits on the duration of a leave and medical documentation requirements. A leave of undefined duration can have devastating consequences for an international student, since study permits only allow for 150 days of authorized leave.

The administration has told us that UMLAP is a “compassionate response” to mental health crises because it allows the University to sanction a student outside of the Code of Conduct. This assumes that a student’s crisis results from individualized need and not larger systemic factors, including the pressures of student life. During a 2019 action to draw attention to the deaths on campus, students described the university as a “pressure-cooker of intense demands, without the resources to meet the student needs to back it up.”

In a December 2020 investigation into the youth mental health crisis, the Toronto Star found that one-third of surveyed students reported waiting “weeks or months” to get a mental health assessment at their school. 

Of all 5173 students registered with Accessibility Services only at the St. George campus (UTSG) during the 2021-2022 academic year, 56 percent of students registered for mental health accommodations. In the 2013-2014 academic year, this number was 31 percent. The UTSG Accessibility Services website lists 22 accessibility advisors, meaning that each advisor is responsible for approximately 235 students. UMLAP is a tri-campus policy. 

The bottom line is this: in a crisis worsened by inaccessible health care and accommodations systems, the perceived outcome is removal from campus. For students, a leave could mean a loss of access to education, health care, financial support, housing, and community. This makes students unwilling to seek care in the first place, creating a vicious, punitive cycle. 

For students, a leave could mean a loss of access to education, health care, financial support, housing, and community.

Law students are among the best equipped to articulate human rights concerns to University policy-makers, especially given the increased awareness of mental health in our profession. By speaking out against UMLAP, members of the Faculty can demonstrate their unwillingness to accept a harmful policy and demand better from their University. 

As mentioned earlier, UMLAP is now under review and accepting student feedback through the consultation website and virtual Town Halls. There is no guaranteed review after this process finishes. As students of the University, this means that now is the time to act and emphasize the negative impact mandated leaves have on the school community. 

Mental Health Resources: 

Supporting a student in distress: https://studentlife.utoronto.ca/service/faculty-support-for-responding-to-distressed-students/ 

  • U of T MySSP is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via telephone, video, or chat in multiple languages

Students can contact: 

Editor’s Note: Harry Myles (2L) is a member of the University of Toronto Law Union (UTLU) Steering Committee and a caseworker in the Housing Division of Downtown Legal Services. Alisha Krishna (2L) is the outgoing Chair and Treasurer of Students for Barrier-Free Access, a caseworker in the Academic Appeals Division of Downtown Legal Services, the Student Life and Academic Committee Equity Officer for the Students’ Law Society, and a member of the UTLU Steering Committee. 

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