In Other Ivory Towers: Amid controversy, Yale alters leave policies

Julia Goldberg and Megan Lin

This piece contains discussion of suicide.

On Jan. 18, Yale University revealed updates to its policies regarding leaves of absence and withdrawals, following a year-long review of its mental health policies by the Yale College Dean’s Office.

Students who need to take time away for medical reasons will now take a medical leave of absence rather than a medical withdrawal — the term employed by the previous policy — from the university. This change in classification provides students with benefits of leaves of absence, including access to Yale’s health insurance, limited participation in student organizations, the ability to visit campus, and a less stringent return process than withdrawals.

The process by which students are reinstated has also been simplified — students no longer need to be “constructively occupied” during their leaves, and when they return, they do not need to submit letters of reference to Yale. And though students were previously allotted only two terms of leave, any student in good academic standing may now take up to four terms of leave.

These changes follow others made last April, when Yale decided that students would no longer need to interview with its reinstatement committee or complete coursework at other universities before returning to campus. Leaves of absence and withdrawal policies have generated controversy at Yale since a student died by suicide in 2015, having expressed fear that Yale would not readmit her after a second withdrawal.

 In March 2021, Yale first-year Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum died by suicide on campus, reigniting campus conversation about Yale’s restrictive withdrawal policies. A Washington Post article broadened the issue’s scope to a national audience in Nov. 2022, detailing how the university pressured suicidal students to withdraw and required them to reapply if they sought readmission.

A month later, two undergraduate students, joined by the mental health advocacy group Elis for Rachael, filed a lawsuit accusing the university of discriminating against students with mental health challenges. 

Members of Elis for Rachael described Wednesday’s policies as “a step in the right direction” in a group statement. “We thank Yale for this first step, but if Yale were to receive a grade for its work on mental health, it would be an incomplete at best,” they wrote.