Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.9

January 29, 2004


Jack Lightstone’s fruitful decade

By Barbara Black

Photo of Jack Lightstone

Jack Lightstone

Jack Lightstone has seen a lot of change at Concordia over his two five-year terms as senior academic officer, and it’s a transformation in which he played a leading role.

Nine years ago, when he assumed the post of Vice-Rector, Academic, as it was then called, programs usually started as the gleam in someone’s eye. They were turned into a proposal, circulated among colleagues to gain support, and then made their way through the chair, the dean and Senate to get approval.

“They weren’t introduced in a structured way — and this was true of other universities — because change occurred on a case-by-case basis, through individual initiatives,” Lightstone recalled. “They were financed out of one big pot, and the strongest plea got the financing.

“However, no one was questioning the relative importance of these projects, and most of the existing programs of the university went unexamined.”

Financial crunch

Then came the big financial crunch of the mid-’90s. It saw all Quebec universities lose 25 per cent of their operating budgets. To this was added another 12.5 per cent loss when the government dropped indexation of the operating budget.

The crisis came at a time when Concordia was carrying an accumulated debt that peaked at about $40 million in 1997. To make matters worse, enrolment had been dropping at the rate of about 0.5 per cent a year for a decade.

Tough as it was at the time, Lightstone feels that the financial crisis was a golden opportunity. Concordia’s response was crucial in making it what it is now: the fastest-growing university in Quebec, if not in Canada, and one of the healthiest financially.

Instead of cutting salaries across the board or borrowing more money to stay afloat, Concordia offered early retirement packages to faculty and staff.

These programs, called ERIP and FALRIP, were enormously popular. From Lightstone’s point of view, the university not only saved what it had been spending on salaries of longtime faculty members, but had a chance to replace them in a reasoned way.

“We needed elbow room, room to manoeuvre. That gave us 150 freed-up positions that could moved around according to the academic planning process. We could use our most important resource, our faculty, to attain our academic goals.”

Lightstone was well versed in academic administration. When he was appointed Vice-Rector Academic in June 1995, he already had experience as Associate Vice-Rector, Academic (Research), and had chaired the Religion Department.

“The challenge was to design an academic planning process with the potential to look at everything, and to have a budget system and a services sector that were driven by our academic goals.”

The internal budget allocation system was completely revamped. “We needed a budget formula that was transparent. You can’t engage in an academic planning process unless you can model its effects on revenue and expenses.”

A non-profit enterprise like a university measures its success not in dividends for shareholders, but in accomplishing its goals, and in providing motivation. “We had to start thinking about what we were doing in a bigger context.”

There was a painful transition period, because old habits die hard, but the recommendations of the first round of the process that started in 1995 were fully implemented by 1998, and “it has been rolling on ever since.”

One result was that enrolment started to grow significantly. “This was not the result of demographics,’ Lightstone said. “The academic planning process removed bottlenecks at the entry level by eliminating a number of overly specialized 400-level courses and freeing up faculty members to teach at the 200 and 300 level.”

Nearly 300 new professors have been hired. “Everyone has been given a clear message about what we expect: activity in research, supervision of graduate students, and active pursuit of pedagogy, including the use of information technology.” As a result, he said, “we have the chance to mold the careers of a critical mass of young people — and we will try desperately to hang on to them by paying them fair and decent salaries, and giving them a stimulating, collegial and supportive working environment.”

The recent contract signed with full-time professors (CUFA) has drawn some comment because it creates an “old” and a “new” salary model, but Lightstone said it would have been impossible at this time to adopt a single model for all. With turnover, the new salary model will become universal in time.

Lightstone feels the shortage of faculty members remains a challenge, and may even have been underestimated. “We made a decision to get into the hiring stream earlier than many others. We hired massively ahead of the retirement curve of baby boomers. We can’t slow down now.”

A scholar of early Judaism, Lightstone is looking toward his return to the relative peace of the classroom when he steps down in June, and has already begun applying for research grants.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t kept his hand in. He has supervised an average of two graduate students a year, and has just published another book, Mishnah and the Social Formation of the Early Rabbinic Guild: A Socio-Rhetorical Approach (ESCJ, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2002.

“Being an administrator is hard on one,” he admitted with a smile. “I used to be able to switch it on and off, but as the years pass, it’s always with you. Switching it off altogether is going to be hard.”