The Lakehead University Student Union intends to make a legal challenge to the courts on Monday, April 30th regarding a recent bylaw change on Lakehead University’s Board of Governors.
The bylaw change, passed on January 27th, redefines the nature of conflicts of interest. The new bylaw states that a conflict of interest occurs when “such member has an interest, directly or indirectly, in any proposed or existing manner under consideration by the Board or a Board Committee that is not substantially the same as all other Board members.” In addition,“Board members who are faculty, staff or students at Lakehead University may participate in the discussion and vote on matters relating generally to the administration of the University provided that their interest in such matters does not differ from the Board as a whole.”
According to LUSU President Michael Snoddon, the bylaw changes suppress the opinions of the Board’s student representatives when it comes to votes on issues such as tuition.
“As the largest stakeholders at Lakehead University, students have a right to be part of decision making, and to vote on the issues that directly affect us,” he said in a press release.
As a result of these changes, according to Snoddon, no student representatives are allowed in the room during discussion or votes on student issues.
“Every single student is affected by these changes. It isn’t just these students. And these students are representatives. They are duly elected by the student body or appointed by the Student Union. Looking at the structural conflict, it’s unique,” he said in comments to TBnewswatch.com.
Board of Governors chair Colin Bruce could not be reached for comment. However, in an interview with CBC News, he stated that the new bylaw is the result of a comprehensive legal review of the Board of Governors operations.
“The bylaw is not directed at students, it’s directed at the entire board. But in the instance of students, the tuition fee is a particular and clear conflict. Any solid reading of conflict of interest will tell you you cannot vote on something in which you have a financial interest.”
Bruce also mentioned in an interview with The Chronicle-Journal that the student representatives on the Board of Governors voted in favour of the new bylaws.
A press conference was held on Friday, April 27th at The Study to outline LUSU’s plans for legal action, as well as a petition to the Ontario legislature requesting the government look at the Lakehead University Act, 1965 in order to confirm student positions on governing bodies at LU, and to “condemn the actions of the Lakehead University Board of Governors in removing the voice and vote of students on any student-related issue.”
Present at this conference were current LUSU President Michael Snoddon, plus incoming President Emma Brightwell and incoming Vice President – Student Issues Emily Lauzon.
During the conference, Brightwell stated that it was LUSU’s intention to file a legal challenge to this bylaw on Monday, April 30th. On the same day, the petition will be introduced before the legislature and is currently being supported by Minister for Colleges, Training and Universities Glenn Murray and NDP Postsecondary Education Critic Theresa Armstrong.
“Our goal is to protect student’s rights, to participate on the governing boards of the university, and to keep our voice on the Board of Governors for all issues,” Brightwell said.
“We know if our school gets away with removing these rights, others will follow.”
Brightwell also noted the groundswell of support from faculty associations, student unions, and citizents across Canada, as well as trending topics on Twitter, Facebook, and in the national news.
“If we do not stand up for the rights and voices of students, then we are letting the Board of Governors decide on the future of the university without the input of the very people it exists to service.”
Second to speak was Emily Lauzon, who added that tuition has increased by 71% since 2006. She also noted that tuition fees make up 48% of the university’s annual revenue.
“We believe students have a fundamental rigtht to speak and vote at the [Board of Governors]. The action taken by the Board of Governors has removed this right from all students,” she said.
“As students we firmly believe the university is unwilling to admit a mistake.”
Mike Snoddon was the last to speak at the press conference. He noted that the bylaws of other university allow students to speak on matters of tuition, citing Queens, Algoma, and Laurentian University as examples.
“For Colin Bruce to tell the public that every other university in Canada is wrong, while allowing students to discuss and vote, shows how out of touch the Board of Governors, senior administration, and the university lawyer is with the reality of how to run a functional university.”
“Our fear is that the Board of Governors has a desire to remove all internal stakeholders – students, faculty, alumni and staff members – from the table. We see this moving very quickly. It may not happen tomorrow, it may not happen next year, but this is where we’re moving towards.”
“We are concerned that this move sets a tone for the removal of other governors who democratically represent stakeholders within the university community,” Snoddon added.
The timing of the release was critical, given that the Board of Governors voted on tuition fee increases that evening.
After the conference the three executives spoke to the media regarding the student union’s legal challenge. When asked why wait until now, without consulting the general membership of LUSU, Snoddon said that it had to be kept quiet due to legal issues.
“We did get a unanimous support from Board of Governors to move forward with this, and we firmly believe that students do stand in solidarity with their student union.”
With Snoddon’s term ending on April 30, what do the new executives think about the legal challenge.
Snoddon said that none of this would be taking place if there wasn’t unanimous support by LUSU. “It will be these three [Brightwell, Lauzon, and incoming Vice President Finance Steven Ackroyd] who will champion the day at the end of the day. I think it’s an exciting time to stand up to the university. No other student union has ever made it to the point that they’ve sued the university. It is our hope that there is an agreement that hits our desk on Monday morning prior to us filing it [Monday afternoon].”
Also, Snoddon clarified the number of student reps on the Board of Governors to be three. Athough The Argus reported in March that the seat number was reduced to one in the recent seat shuffle, Snoddon said that Board of Governors voted in favour of reducing seats but still have to confirm it at their Annual General Meeting in September. Still, it’s part of LUSU’s objective.
“That is the next fight. First off, let’s get our seat enshrined within law, and let’s get our voting rights back, and then we’ll launch the fight into talking about proper representation moving forward.”
Snoddon and Brightwell are confident that LUSU will be successful in their endeavour. “Because this is a public interest case, and because we are doing a judicial review with a number of different interested parties, we feel that there won’t actually be any legal costs attached to winning or losing. On the flipside, no one in our office has any doubt in their mind that this is going to be a losing fight.”
“We are in the right, and it is unfortunate that the university is taking this stance,” said Snoddon.
“This is the first step. We are not going to give up after this, we will challenge them again. This is an issue regarding students’s rights, their right to vote, and their right to have a voice, and that has been taken away and we’re not going to stop until we get that back,” added Brightwell.
Snoddon also talked about the land lease deal previously voted down at the LUSU Board of Directors meeting on April 6. He mentioned that a campaign against the land lease deal will be launched shortly. “We believe that hazard land is important to the university and one of the draws for students here … that land is used by faculty and students and there have been proposals for outdoor classrooms built in that area.”
“We are standing behind academics rather than the business interests of the university.”
Following the press conference, the Board of Governors unanimously passed a motion to allow students to discuss and vote on the proposed tuition increase pending a review of the institution’s Conflict of Interest Bylaw. This bylaw was suspended so as to allow for student participation in the discussions.
In the end, tuition was yet again hiked up, this time by 4.5%.
Photo by Mike St. Jean