Report 410

DATE: October 27, 2020

PARTIES: Ms. A.L. ("the Student") v. University at Toronto Faculty of Information and School of Graduate Studies

HEARING DATE: June 15, 2020, via Zoom

Committee Members:
Professor Ariel Katz, Chair
Ms. Susan Froom, Student Governor
Professor Paul Kingston, Faculty Governor

Appearances:
For the Student Appellant:
Ms. Audrey-Anne Delage, Law Student, Downtown Legal Services
Ms. Jennifer Fehr, Staff Lawyer, Downtown Legal Services

For the University at Toronto Faculty of Information and School of Graduate Studies:
Mr. Robert Centa, Counsel, Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP
Ms. Emily Home, Counsel, Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP

Hearing Secretary:
Mr. Christopher Lang, Direction, Office of Appeals, Discipline and Faculty Grievances
Ms. Krista Kennedy, Administrative Clerk, Office of Appeals, Discipline and Faculty Grievances

The Student appeals a decision of the Graduate Academic Appeals Board (“GAAB”), which reviewed a decision by the School of Graduate Studies (“SGS”) to terminate her enrollment in the PhD program of the Faculty of Information (“Faculty”). The SGS termination decision followed a recommendation by the Faculty, based on the Faculty’s determination that the Student had failed to make sufficient progress towards the completion of her degree.

The Student asked the Academic Appeals Committee (“AAC”) to grant her appeal and reinstate her to the PhD program at the Faculty with 14 months remaining to complete her PhD. The Student raised the following three issues:

  1. the Faculty’s refusal to consider her request for an extension; and
  2. the standard for procedural fairness in the decision to terminate; and
  3. the level of supervision from her Supervising Committee.

At the outset, the AAC indicated that its role is to evaluate the decisions of the bodies it reviews and consider whether the relevant academic regulations and requirements have been applied correctly, consistently, and fairly.

To determine whether the SGS had complied with the relevant SGS Calendar, the AAC reviewed section 8.5.2 of the Calendar, which establishes a process that must be followed before a graduate unit may recommend the termination of a doctoral student’s registration. It also reviewed sections 8.1, 8.3, and 8.4 of the Calendar, as well as SGS’ Guidelines for Departmental Monitoring of Progress Through the PhD, which underscores the important safeguard against rushed, ill-considered, and arbitrary termination decisions which section 8.5.2 provides. In interpreting these provisions, the AAC agreed with the Student’s interpretation and held that section 8.5.2 includes cumulative requirements that both doctoral students and the graduate unit must comply with. Among other things, section 8.5.2 requires that two meetings between a student and their supervising committee take place. The AAC noted that a meeting between the student and their committee, during which the committee assesses the student’s progress in the program and provides advice on future work, must take place before the committee reports on the student’s progress. It is not enough that the committee reports unsatisfactory progress twice, but to serve as a basis for a recommendation of termination, the committee must do so in each of two consecutive meetings. Since only one such meeting had taken place between the Student and her Supervising Committee, the AAC rejected SGS’s arguments that it did not have to comply with section 8.5.2, and that even if it had to comply with this provision, it had complied with its intent.

In deciding the extension issue, the AAC considered, among other things, the requirements set out in the Calendar, the evidence relating to the practice of granting extensions, SGS’s submission that the Student was not entitled to an extension because extensions may only be granted in exceptional circumstances, and the inherent flexibility in the concept of “exceptional circumstances”. The AAC found that the Student’s inability to achieve satisfactory progress within the original deadline could have justified extending the completion deadline and that granting an extension was something that the Faculty had to consider. It concluded that the Faculty’s failure to consider an extension and to advise the Student on how to apply for it were unreasonable. It held that this unreasonable behaviour tainted the Faculty’s recommendation to terminate the Student’s registration and tainted the SGS decision that was based on that recommendation. Additionally, the AAC found that the GAAB’s conclusion that the extension would not have made a difference was unreasonable.

To determine whether the standard for procedural fairness had been met in the decision to terminate the Student’s registration and whether the Faculty had given the Student sufficient notice of the possibility of termination, the AAC reviewed comments that the Committee on Standing had provided to the Student in an Annual Progress Review. The AAC stated that whether notice was given is a question of fact, but whether that notice was sufficient is a question of law. It also noted that the existence of notice does not necessarily make the notice sufficient, as a matter of law, and added that sufficient notice is a legal concept and an aspect of the duty of fairness. Relying on Baker v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817, the AAC concluded that the comments by the Committee on Standing and the notice did not accord with the high level of procedural fairness that a decision to terminate a doctoral student entails. Further, given the Student’s previous termination, she submitted that the knowledge of her previous termination deprived her of an impartial assessment of her work. In considering this submission, the AAC applied the legal test relating to bias, namely whether a reasonably informed bystander could reasonably perceive bias on the part of the decision-maker. The AAC found that knowledge of the Student’s earlier history could very likely have created a bias, at least a subconscious one, which deprived her of an impartial assessment of her work and led to a rushed decision to terminate her.

Concerning the level of supervision the Student had received from her Supervising Committee, the AAC disagreed with the assertion that the supervision the Student had received exceeded SGS’ expectations in terms of quality, timeliness, and availability. For example, the AAC noted that the GAAB’s conclusion about the adequacy of the support the Student had received from the Faculty was based on a very restrictive concept of what good supervision entails. Given that the Student had received a single set of detailed written comments and based on the Supervision Guidelines, the AAC rejected the suggestion that it could infer that supervision over the course of the program was adequate. In the AAC’s view, the supervision fell below SGS standards.

In allowing the appeal, the AAC found that the Faculty and SGS did not follow the relevant University regulations before the decision to terminate the Student’s registration was made. Moreover, it found that the process did not comply with the requirements of procedural fairness; that it was unreasonable for the Faculty and SGS to terminate the Student’s registration without considering whether other measures, such as extending her timeline for completion, were more appropriate; and that the level of supervision and support that the Student received fell short of the appropriate standard. According to the AAC, not only did the Faculty and SGS not help the Student overcome institutional roadblocks that stood in her way to achieving her educational potential but their actions and inactions entrenched them.

Appeal allowed.