By Lilly Stewart
University of Toronto, with its old, gothic buildings and prestigious reputation, has a history stretching back almost two centuries. Now in 2020, it can feel odd to think of U of T as a religious and antiquated institution. Remembering what it used to be, how far it has come, and how much more there is to improve on is incredibly important in the current social climate and civil rights movements.
U of T was established in 1827 and until 1884, women were not allowed to attend (Canadian Encyclopedia). The first five women who did eventually graduate in 1885 were barred from attending lectures in person and had to learn from private tutors in their homes (U of T Magazine).
One of the first black students to graduate from U of T was Alexander Thomas Augusta, a Trinity Medical College student in the 1850s. He was denied access to American medical schools due to his skin colour, but U of T accepted him, making him the first Black medical student in western Canada. And in 2020, Chika Oriuwa was the only Black medical student in a class of 259. She graduated as valedictorian, being the first black woman ever to do so (The Star). Now, nearly 200 years later, progress has been made, but Black students are still severely underrepresented in the primary architect of the university, and face massive discrimination on campus.
Recently, Black students have been breaking the silence and calling out these instances of racism. In an op-ed published by The Varsity, three Black students detailed their experiences. The University has to contend with its past of inadequately addressing Black students’ voices and the very real, blatant instances of discrimination that pervade in the present. The instagram page “beingblackatuoft” allows Black students to share their experiences anonymously and reveal that in every department, there is discrimination from both faculty and peers. One anonymous student wrote “I love how the engineering community thinks they’re so supportive and makes everyone feel welcomed; only the involved students are, but at heart, the main student body is ignorant and racist.” Another student commented, “I try to avoid my registar. Everyone told me they were great but the two times I went were horrible and pretty discriminatory.”
With such exposure, and more conversations and action being taken by students, U of T is starting to create new memories—and a new history—for future students to look back on. U of T has a long, impressive legacy and reputation that is something to be proud of. But the opposite is also true. What is U of T doing now, as an institution, to be on the right side of history?
U of T put out a message in June standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, attaching resources from the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, as well as from the Health and Wellness center. However, concrete actions need to be taken by the faculty and staff to further the cause.
U of T has organized a series of workshops for faculty and students addressing harassment, mircro-aggressions, anti-Black racism, and understanding whiteness. While these workshops are important and can be very beneficial, staff must choose to partake in them. In June, there was a petition proposed by Jahnae Jones-Haywood, a criminology student, for a mandatory anti-racism course to be implemented at U of T. The petition received around 5,000 signatures, but such a concrete step has yet to be implemented (Global News).
Of course, racism and discrimination aren’t the only issues the university has to work on. In the weeks leading up to reading week this year, several students complained that their professors were putting deadlines for assignments during the break. The Faculty of Arts and Science’s Dean of Students sent out a mass email to professors telling them that this was unacceptable, and as a result, those deadlines were moved or cancelled. Because classes are now online, some professors were also planning to upload lectures during reading week, which goes against the purpose of the break. Reading week is a time with no deadlines and no lectures. Online school and the isolation of COVID-19 already takes a toll on students’ mental health, so the fact that several professors were putting an extra work load on U of T students who already work incredibly hard at an academically challenging university is disappointing.
Recently, U of T has also received criticism for the lackluster mental health services and extremely long wait times for such support. For international students who are far from home without a support system nearby, it is more difficult for them to reach out and seek help. There have been 5 U of T students lost to suicide since 2017, and repeated efforts by students, such as Loizza Aquino who co-founded the advocacy group UofThrive, haven’t seen much progress (CBC). Aquino recently announced in an Instagram post that she sent a letter to the U of T president Meric Gertler outlining that steps must be taken: “I ask that the University stops normalizing student suicide and poor mental health. Students should not have to recover from their post-secondary education.”
U of T is a huge institution with thousands of students, and the mental health of university students everywhere is an issue, not just in Toronto or at U of T. However, because U of T is one of the top schools in Canada and how it has paved the way in so many avenues such as science, research, and social advocacy, their response to student struggles should honor that legacy and reputation. These kinds of changes must be proactive. For example, raising the number of counsellors available would be a good start because as of right now, there are only 90 counsellors for a school of 90,000 students. This is connected to the concerns around racism and discrimination at U of T. While racism and mental health are systemic issues, the university must have a better support system in place for them. Faculty, staff, and the administration at large have the power to be the change we all wish to see and to set an example for future generations of staff and students on what will not be tolerated.