Commentary  Conscience of a president

Zach Newburgh should resign his office

Despite my complete disengagement from all matters SSMU-related, I feel compelled by recent events to discuss the unspoken code of ethics by which all executives of the Society are bound. In addition, I would like to clarify why the SSMU Constitution requires the president (and no other officer) “to ensure the long-term integrity of the Society,” and why they in particular ought to be held to a higher standard.

Those familiar with SSMU’s organizational chart already know that the vice-presidents do not report directly to the president; the Executive Committee as a whole is responsible for managing SSMU’s day-to-day affairs. Nevertheless, the president is the leader of this committee, and is responsible for presenting its decisions to Council. Other responsibilities include serving as chief officer, coordinating relations between the Society and the McGill administration, and enforcing the Society’s constitution and bylaws. While these tasks represent only a fraction of the president’s workload, they are arguably some of the most important. In order to properly fulfill these responsibilities, the president must have the confidence of all stakeholders involved: SSMU’s staff, the University, and above all, the students.

In order to earn this trust, the president has a tremendous personal duty to uphold only the highest moral and ethical standards. Despite the aforementioned division of power, the president is, for better or for worse, the face of the Society. A lack of confidence in SSMU’s leadership (or its figurehead) limits its effectiveness, and, by extension, its ability to lobby on behalf of undergraduate students.

Currently, SSMU represents its members in a number of University forums, most notably the Board of Governors and the Senate. Over the past several years, senators and governors alike have become increasingly suspicious of student politicians, and openly questioned whether these “students” speak for the average undergraduate taking five classes per semester.

The president is also directly involved in all negotiations between SSMU (the Corporation) and McGill University, discussing such pivotal contracts as SSMU’s memorandum of agreement and the lease of the University Centre. Senior administrators must feel comfortable that they are dealing with the students’ elected voice – one McGill student speaking on behalf of 20,000.

This is why SSMU executives – especially the SSMU president – must maintain high ethical standards in the work s/he does on behalf of students. Officers of the Society are paid a living wage – after tuition and fees are taken out, executives live on a typical student budget. Perks are limited, the hours are long, and officers are often the subject of heavy criticism. In short, the life of an executive is far from easy. A true SSMU executive is not driven by the paycheque or the glory, but rather by the desire to improve the quality of student life for their peers.

Nevertheless, opportunities to profit personally from holding such an office are virtually unlimited. Companies all over the country salivate at the prospect of direct access to the untapped market of 18 to 23 year-olds that is McGill. Offers from companies promoting “new and exciting” services for students are nothing new; very rarely are they anything more than a scheme to exploit the student market. In contrast, SSMU’s exclusive contract with Les Brasseurs du Nord (Boréale) provides a tangible benefit to students, and all compensation is shared communally. While the contents of these negotiations are confidential, the process itself is very public. Students should always be aware of what is being negotiated on their behalf.

The purpose of this piece is not to suggest the sky is falling. In fact, I think claims of an impending “SSMUpocalypse” are entirely overblown. The reality is that SSMU (the Corporation), is in excellent hands. It is stewarded by an incredibly capable staff committed to the Society’s continued success. It boasts some of the strictest financial controls, and is in a much better position than it was just six years ago. Regardless of internal turmoil, core services will continue to function.

What I would like to relate is the following: abusing the office of the president is inexcusable. If Council believes that an elected officer has failed to uphold the ethical standards I have described, it should not hesitate to remedy the problem. As I have already explained, the consequences of inaction are far more severe.

Ivan Neilson received his B.A. in Economics and Finance in 2010, and was SSMU president in 2009-2010. He can be reached at