Report 413

DATE: May 10, 2021

PARTIES: S.R.K (the “Student”) v. University of Toronto School of Theology

HEARING DATE: March 26, 2021, via Zoom

Chair:
Mr. John Monahan

Appearances:
For the Student Appellant:
Ms. S.R.K. (the “Student”)

For the Toronto School of Theology:
Ms. Catherin Fan, Counsel, Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP
Mr. Robert Centa, Counsel, Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP

The Student appealed the decision of the TST Academic Appeal Committee to deny her request to be reinstated in the program as they found that the decision of the TST’s Graduate Centre for Theological Studies (“GCTS”) to terminate the Student ’s registration in the Th.D. program had been a reasonable one. The Committee noted that they should only interfere with the decision of the GCTS if that decision was unreasonable, or it was made through an unfair interpretation and/or application of the relevant University policies, processes and procedures that were replied upon in said decision. The Student raised four grounds of appeal: (1) the Student’s poor state of mental health at the time of her comprehensive examinations, (2) alleged bias against the Student as an international student of a different gender, race and cultural background, (3) the appointment of the second examiner was made unfairly and without the Student’s consent or agreement, and (4) denial of the opportunity to orally defend the comprehensive essay or write supplementary examinations.

The Student argued that the Committee should take into consideration her poor state of mental health throughout her time in the program including the period in which she was taking her comprehensive examinations. The Committee found that, although sympathetic to the Student’s poor emotional state, there was no evidence of a medical diagnosis to indicate that the Student was suffering from mental health challenges at the time she was preparing for her comprehensive examinations. Furthermore, there was no evidence before the Committee to indicate that the Student requested, or made anyone in TST aware of her need for an accommodation on the basis of mental health challenges, and in further absence of evidence to suggest that the Student has provided any medical evidence to the TST regarding this need, the TST did not have an obligation to accommodate her. Therefore, the Committee denied this ground of appeal.

The Student alleged that, during her time as a student at the TST, she was underestimated, discounted, and treated unfairly because of bias against her as an international student of a different gender, race, and cultural background. The Committee is only able to assess the merit of the allegations with substantiating evidence. The Student did not submit any information to show that she had been treated differently than other students on the basis of race, gender, cultural background, disability or any other prohibited grounds of discrimination outlined by the Human Rights Code. Therefore, the Committee denied this ground of appeal given the lack of detailed or documentary evidence regarding the Student’s experience regarding the comprehensive examination or evidence showing that the TST applied different policies, practices and processes to the Student based on one or more of the prohibited grounds set out in the Human Rights Code.

The Student alleged that a second examiner was appointed for her comprehensive examination without her consent or agreement and thus, the appointment was made unfairly. The Committee was convinced that it caused stress and confusion for the Student to learn so shortly before her examinations that the examiners had not yet been confirmed. There was no information before the Committee as to why TST waited so long to advise the Student they needed to replace one of the professors for the examination. This would have not been ideal circumstances for the Student, however, the Committee found that these unexpected challenges were not so daunting that the Student could not have more clearly indicated her disagreement with the change to her examiners if she did not consent. Moreover, the Student indicated that she decided to trust the decision-making of the supervising committee with respect to another examiner. Therefore, the Committee found that TST complied with both the letter and spirit of the Handbook by obtaining the Student’s consent to appoint a different professor to the role and denied this ground of appeal.

The Student argued that TST is in breach of the 2018 TST Handbook as they did not allow her an opportunity to provide an oral defence of her comprehensive essay. The Committee noted that ss. 8.3.2, 8.6.3, 8.6.3.3, 8.6.3.3.3 and 8.6.3.3.4 of the 2018 TST Handbook all indicate and confirm that the essay and its oral defence are inseparably linked. The Committee further noted that these sections make it abundantly clear that the third comprehensive exam (essay) includes an oral defence and that the essay is to be graded on its written content and in part on an oral defence of that content. On review of the evidence and submissions of Counsel for TST, the Committee found that TST’s interpretation of its own Handbook was unreasonable, and in turn, it was unreasonable for the TST to issue the Student a summary of her marks with an “incomplete” after depriving her an opportunity to defend her essay orally as required by the Handbook. The Committee agreed with this ground of appeal.

Appeal granted.

The Committee recommended that the TST register the Student back to the program for a minimum of one full semester. Further, the Student may wish to begin preparing for her oral defence and work with TST regarding timing. Furthermore, the Committee recommended that, upon the conclusion of the Student’s oral defence, the TST should assess the comprehensive essay and its oral defence together and assign an overall grade. All provisions of the 2018 TST Handbook continue to apply. Lastly, the Committee recommended that the Student’s tuition and any student fees be waived up to and including the final determination of whether or not she has succeeded in passing her comprehensive examinations because for reasons of fairness, the Student should not have to pay a second time.