It’s crucial to remember that the students forming the leadership of student associations, like SSMU, have enormous influence and power at their disposal. Despite the check of Council and committees, executives are empowered to seek out contracts with businesses to further Society activities. For many companies, executives serve as the gatekeepers to markets of tens of thousands of young people with huge future economic potential. These companies are all too aware of how easy executives can be swayed through charm and flattery. This is why it is so critical for students to expect the highest levels of accountability from their elected Society executives, particularly the president.
Fortunately, the Society has developed rules and policies to guide the conduct of executives and other Society decision-makers, to ensure that the decisions they make are accountable first and foremost to the student body, and not to private interests. After all, student associations are not traditional corporations: their bottom line is not profit – their bottom line is the student experience and quality of service. In particular, SSMU has a Conflict of Interest Policy, and other financial management policies, that govern the kind of conduct that executives, and the society as a whole, must follow.
These codes of conduct underline the importance of objective and ethical decision-making in all matters of Society business. The first sentence of the Conflict of Interest Policy states that “the Students’ Society of McGill University has a responsibility to engage in respectful, ethical, and objective decision-making practices.” Furthermore, the same policy calls on decision-makers in the Society to fully disclose any possible conflicts of interest that may arise before further actions are taken: “In all cases, it is the responsibility of the individual to acknowledge their concern about a potential conflict of interest they may have before entering into a financial transaction or debate directly related to the making of a decision.” On both counts, SSMU President Zach Newburgh failed in his duty. Not only did he compromise his ability to objectively make decisions by working for jobbook.com, a company that had business interests in SSMU, he also intentionally avoided disclosing this conflict of interest to some of his co-executives, and to the Legislative Council.
The most distressing part of Newburgh’s actions is not that he necessarily profited from his business relations with jobbook.com. Rather, it’s that he made a conscious decision to use his title as the president and spokesperson of all McGill undergrads for the benefit of a private company, possibly for personal gain, and not in the interests of students. Newburgh defended his actions by saying that “it was in the best interests of students,” but it’s hard to believe how the interest of students was truly his priority when jobbook.com, and not students, stood to make big money from the work he did for them.
It’s clear that Newburgh failed to distinguish between his commitment to the Students’ Society he represents, and his commitment to his own interests, and a private one at that. This lapse in judgment is not unforgivable, but it does undermine the legitimacy and integrity of his mandate. Having said all this, it is only reasonable for the student body to expect public admission of fault and a resignation.
Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan is a U3 Political Science student and former VP External of SSMU (2009-2010). He can be reached at email@example.com.