Zach Newburgh: SSMU as the glue, not the engine of division

New SSMU President Zach Newburgh hopes to unite the McGill community, improve effeciency and accessibility, and promote sustainable green initiatives. / Photo: Owen Egan
New SSMU President Zach Newburgh hopes to unite the McGill community, improve effeciency and accessibility, and promote sustainable green initiatives. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Pascal Zamprelli

“Exhausting” is the concise analysis Zach Newburgh, honours major in Middle East Studies, offers to describe the recent campaign that saw him elected President of the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU). Indeed, it figured among the society’s most hotly contested elections in recent history, with many candidates engaged in close races.

So despite the frenzy that gripped Gert’s on the night the results were publicly announced, Newburgh had a notion of one important first thing he needed to do: reach out to the other candidates “so that all of our visions to some extent could be moved forward. They all had such tremendous campaigns and ideas.”

It is this spirit of co-operation and community-building that Newburgh tried to make central to his campaign, and now plans to keep as a guiding principle throughout his year-long presidency.

The road to McGill

Originally from New York, where he hopes to return after graduating, Newburgh moved to Halifax at a young age and near Toronto shortly thereafter. After a year at the University of Toronto, however, he felt the pull of Montreal, with its “great social scene,” and McGill, where “students in general are interested in having that equilibrium and balance between work and play.”

So he transferred, and went on to exemplify this balance, pursing studies while getting involved in student issues. Last year, he became Speaker of the SSMU Council, driven both by his interest in ensuring “democracy and fairness for each and every individual who wants to share their voice,” as well as his self-professed but less conventional “love [of] implement[ing] Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Encouraged by friends and supporters, he then decided to keep going and seek the top job.

Running for president

Among other things, Newburgh ran on increasing the accessibility, efficiency and effectiveness of the SSMU, with ideas like providing times at which individuals could meet with executives and Council, and by improving access to information about SSMU policies. Here, he plans to build on the “incredible legacy” of his predecessor, Ivan Neilson, who Newburgh credits for making important improvements to the society in these areas.

He also wants to find ways to encourage green sustainability initiatives with an emphasis on using the resources we have close at hand, such as the technical expertise of students in science, engineering and environmental studies.

But both these initiatives tie into the overarching theme of Newburgh’s campaign, one he expects will in many ways define the year ahead: building a community together by incorporating all the disparate voices of the student body.

A community of communities

“We have a plethora of McGill identities,” Newburgh says, referring to the various academic disciplines, clubs, cultures, and so on. “Each of them is interested in having a voice in the student society and we should be actively trying to engage the entire student community, not just one particular group or another.”

He believes the SSMU generally does a good job at addressing political issues, but thinks it’s time to focus on other aspects of student life, such as sporting and social events. He hopes to encourage a McGill community that is “not just academic, and that’s not just political – one that our students are really proud of.”

He’d also like to move the SSMU away from taking political positions on issues beyond its sphere of activity. While he is adamant that the SSMU has a role in creating and facilitating forums for such discussions, he believes that when it takes policy positions on contentious issues, “what we do is divide the community, and we exacerbate tensions rather than providing opportunities for growth, learning and friendship.”

“The role of the SSMU,” he says, “is to be the glue that ties all students together, not the organization that divides them.”

Newburgh says that, luckily, he and the students elected to the Executive all got along even before the campaign, and the new president is visibly happy about the team around him. A busy summer lies ahead for them as they prepare for an even busier year, and attempt to, in his words, “live up to the expectations of the voters who put us there.”