The Lakehead University Student Union plans to challenge the school's Board of Governors in court.

Union president Michael Snoddon said a recent bylaw revision muzzles the three student representatives on the Board of Governors.

"I think that this change in the conflict of interest bylaw silences students," Snoddon said. "It is the number one way to get students out of the limelight."

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Lakehead University Student Union president Michael Snoddon says a recent bylaw revision muzzles the three student representatives on the Board of Governors. (supplied)

Snoddon said that's because the board now considers it a conflict of interest for students to vote on things like tuition fees.

"It means that if any issue pertaining to students as a whole comes up … these three members must leave the room, [and] cannot discuss the issue and cannot vote for or against the issue," he said.

Nora Loreto, who speaks for the Canadian Federation of Students in Ontario, said that's not normal practice.

"I'm unaware of a situation where students have come this close to losing their ability to vote on certain matters at the Board of Governors," Loreto said.

She said that at most universities, student governors have the same rights and responsibilities as any other board member.

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The office for the Lakehead University Student Union at its Thunder Bay campus. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"Students comprise the largest group at a university … and so it's very strange for Lakehead University's administration to attempt to change how they define student participation and the role of students at their Board of Governors," she said.

Loreto added that student board members are in the minority on university boards — so when it comes time to vote, they don't really shift the results anyway.

But the chair of the Lakehead University Board of Governors said tuition hikes are a clear conflict of interest for student governors.

Colin Bruce said the existing bylaw was antiquated, and amendments to the bylaw apply to the entire board.    

"We brought in a new conflict of interest bylaw that is to be applied evenly to all members of the Board of Governors," Bruce said. "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."

He added there are many other matters that come before the Board of Governors that have an effect on the student experience at the university.

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The chair of the Lakehead University Board of Governors said tuition hikes are a clear conflict of interest for student governors. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"Student governors are in the room, they discuss them, they vote on them," Bruce said. "But tuition fees, because they are of a financial nature, are clearly a conflict of interest, and they should not participate in that vote."

Snoddon said, even though the student union has voiced its concerns to the Board of Governors, it's not budging.

So next Monday, LUSU's lawyer will submit an application for a judicial review of the bylaw change.

'Massive' fight

It’s a move Loreto said she’s never seen in her eight-year involvement with student unions. She added that Lakehead University's attempt to make it a conflict of interest for students to vote on student matters is going to upset a lot of people, including student unions, across the country.

"If Lakehead University doesn't back down, or if the government doesn't step in to say, 'look, students deserve equal representation in terms of their capacity to perform as a board member,' I think we're going to see a pretty massive fight," Loreto said.

Snoddon said the student union has contacted universities across the country to find out if their conflict of interest bylaws prevent students from discussing or voting on matters like tuition fees — and said he has not found any.

Some university board bylaws — including the University of Calgary and Queen's University — specifically say that student board members can vote on matters relating to tuition.

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Colin Bruce, chair of Lakehead's Board of Governors, says it's a conflict of interest to have student reps at the Board of Governors vote on issues such as tuition hikes. (supplied)

'Best' legal advice 'possible'

Bruce said what other universities do is entirely of their own choosing.

"What other universities do is their call," he said. "We don't phone them up and check on how we should run LU, and we don't expect them to phone us up and ask how they should run their university."

Loreto remarked that sometimes there is a provision that student board members must confirm their understanding that their obligation as a board member is to act in the best interests of the university as a whole.

But for Bruce, the matter is settled.

"In this past year the Board of Governors undertook a wholesale review of how we operate as a board, and that includes a review of the size of the board, the membership on the board, and what kinds of regulations guide us," he said.

"It became very clear, after a thorough, external legal review that our conflict of interest passages in our bylaws were antiquated and needed to be made more contemporary.

"We went out and asked the best legal advice possible, where should we stand on conflict of interest.  And it was the documented opinion that was offered to us."