After serving the Brock community for ten years as the school’s president, Jack Lightstone will be ending his term this year. As his time at the school comes to a close, this article hopes to highlight some of the significant things that he has seen and experienced in his many days at Brock over the past decade, and to try and give an idea of what, exactly, it is that a university president experiences and contributes.
When asked what a typical day in the life of a university president is like, Lightstone’s answer was that “there is no typical day.” So instead, this article will be highlighting some of the most significant days that Lightstone’s time at Brock have seen, and some examples of the closest thing to “typical” days that Lightstone has seen in his time at Brock.
Ten Years Ago
When Lightstone first started at Brock University, the school was in the middle of a major period of transition. He began his presidency being immersed in a community that was working towards a substantial change both in how it saw and identified itself.
“Brock, when I got here, was experiencing the initial wave of major change. That change was on several fronts,” said Lightstone. “First of all, it had just made the decision to become more research-intensive and to introduce more graduate program offerings, and it had also absorbed a double cohort. It was dealing with a major reorientation in its direction and a major change in its size. I think at the time it was still trying to figure out how it was going to manage that.”
In discussing the major changes that were navigated over the past decade, Lightstone focused on two major issues: space and identity.
In terms of space, Lightstone emphasized that the major issue facing the university during its rapid growth and change was not just a lack of space, but a lack of specific types of specialized space.
“There were a lot of faculty hired, and these faculty were expected to teach undergraduate students, teach graduate students, and do significant research. Some of those areas required highly specialized equipment to do their work (and sometimes their teaching), and sometimes those labs didn’t exist or were inadequate,” said Lightstone. “Everyone told me, when I visited every department, that there was a pressing issue with space: if not the amount of space (although that was certainly an issue), then the type of space.”
Lightstone also emphasized that the school’s identity — particularly in the understanding of how Brock related to the greater Niagara Region — was also undergoing a major transition. Because the makeup of the student body was changing, it became important to examine exactly what the school’s identity was.
Lightstone said that one of the major changes was in the amount of students that came from within the region. He said that, before his term started, approximately 70 per cent of Brock students were from Niagara, while about 30 per cent were from outside the region. In contrast, he said that Brock now has 75 per cent non-local students, and only 25 per cent local students.
“The double cohort changed the face of the university,” said Lightstone. “Since the vast majority of our students are now not local students, the whole relationship of the university and the student body to the host community around us changed. It became, I think, critical to ask what the relationship was between Brock and the Niagara Community.”
The Past Ten Years
Lightstone said that he feels confident in the progress that Brock has had over the past ten years in addressing the concerns that were present when he began. He said that he is happy to see how the space of campus has improved, as well as how Brock has been able to construct a positive identity and constructive connection to the surrounding community.
“If you look at what’s happened over the past ten years, everything, I think, comes down to those basic questions,” said Lightstone. “We now have the specialized space we need for our academic and research programs, including the Cairns Complex, the Marilyn I. Walker School, and the addition of a lot of other spaces on campus over the past ten years. I think, though we’re still underspaced, we at least now have the type of specialized space that we require.”
Lightstone particularly communicated his gratitude towards the Walker family, the Cairns family and the Goodman family for their contributions to specialized space on campus.
In terms of identity, Lightstone credits a variety of different resources, programs and initiatives with helping Brock establish an identity and a relationship with the region.
“On the issue of ‘what does it mean for Brock to now be a mid-sized university, not a small university, with most of its students coming from outside the region,’ I think we’ve addressed that in a number of ways, too,” said Lightstone. “I think that our stress on experiential learning really tries to re-establish a link between our student body and the communities that surround it. The research institutes we’ve established over the last couple of years have been required to have community partners, so that the research that is done in those institutes not only produces academic results, but also has an impact on partners in the community.”
Lightstone said that he is also happy with the general community partnerships that the university has created.
“I think we’ve done a lot more to work in partnerships overall with the Niagara community in order to mobilize the university and our students, faculty and staff to build institutions that will advance the community economically, culturally and socially,” said Lightstone. “Things like the Niagara Community Observatory, incubators and accelerators like the Generator at One and Innovate Niagara, and institutions like Biolinc or the Blueprint program.”
Lightstone says that a lot has been done to answer the question: “how do we serve both the world of the academy and the world around us?”
“I think we don’t have all of the answers yet,” said Lightstone. “But I think in the past ten years we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress.”
There is no “typical day”
As previously mentioned, Lightstone said that his schedule is so varied that it would be impossible to identify a “typical day.” However, some common themes were early mornings, long commutes and unpredictability.
“Some days I’ll be having breakfast at 8:00 a.m. with the BUSU executive or the GSA executive to try and discuss matters that we can help each other with. I also spend a fair amount of time representing the university in the community,” said Lightstone. “I might be in a car driving to Toronto for a meeting with the presidents of other universities at the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), or meeting with people in the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.”
Lightstone said that advocacy for the school is a large part of his work for the university.
“I might be meeting with elected officials and their staff, advocating for universities. I might be there to explain the strategic direction of the university and why we’re taking the direction we are, or I might be trying to advocate for a particular position on a new funding formula that’s being developed.”
When not in Toronto, Lightstone also has a large amount of commitments here in St. Catharines. He said that the amount of time he spends in each city varies immensely; some weeks, he’ll spend almost the entire week in Toronto, while some weeks the majority of his time is spent on campus.
When in the city, he said that he “might be meeting with Alumni or prospective donors and benefactors of the university. I might be writing position papers for advocacy on behalf of the university. As a member of the COU, I might be chairing one or another committee. I am currently the co-chair of the board of eCampus, the online college and university consortium. I might be writing reports to the board of our university or the senate of our university, trying to provide as complete a picture as possible of the context outside the university and how it might impinge upon us.”
The most important job a president can do
When asked what the most significant role the president plays at a university, Lightstone said that there were two primary roles that he believes are most important. One is the need for the president to provide a coherent picture of what is currently happening outside of the university to the others involved in the university so they are aware of the context in which they are making their decisions, and how this context might affect the impact of these decisions.
During the course of Lightstone’s ten years, a lot of his (and the greater university’s) focus was on navigating this space of change from a small university to a mid-sized one. One thing that Lightstone wanted to emphasize was that, no matter how much change the school was able to successfully navigate, or how many significant things have happened during his presidency, he does not take sole credit for any of it.
“I want to be really clear; there is nothing I have done alone,” said Lightstone. “As president, I rely on a team of really competent people… so I think it would be completely inaccurate to attribute anything to myself by myself.”
“I think it’s always a challenge for a university, where decision making is so collegial, and therefore dispersed amongst a lot of people. Someone has to give them as clear a notion as possible if there is something happening out there that might affect us, negatively or positively,” said Lightstone. “I think, in some ways, the most important thing a president can do is provide as complete a picture as possible to the university community of what the environment is like around us, so they can take that into account.”
Lightstone emphasized that an awareness of the culture, environment and context that surrounds a university’s actions is one of the most important things that needs to be considered whenever the university is making major decisions.
“I think that, if an institution has a shared understanding of the environment in which it has to find its way, then I think you’ve gone 80 per cent of the distance in finding your way,” said Lightstone. “And I think that the president is best suited to do that, of anyone else in the university, because of some of the unique sets of experiences that the president is going to have; meeting with community leaders, meeting with leaders of the government, in many cases meeting with leaders of businesses and social agencies, and so-on. I think that trying to build that coherent, unified picture that others can use to do their work is probably the most important.”
The other role that Lightstone identified as most important is the need to sometimes be a decision maker during times of indecision.
“When we all agree, it’s easy to make decisions. When we can’t find consensus on an issue, the decision has to be made, and someone has to do it,” said Lightstone. “Nine times out of ten, the institution will find a broad consensus. But that one time out of ten where there is no broad consensus, it stops at the president’s office. If there is no consensus, it’s a difficult decision to make.”
Lightstone said that some of the most challenging moments for a president, and the ones that test that president’s strength, are when they have to make those decisions.
“No matter what decision you make, someone’s not going to like it,” said Lightstone. “So, I’d say that the ten per cent of the time, when people are on all sides of the issue and a decision has to be made, those are moments that test you. Above all, they test your capacity to give sound, reasonable judgements.”
The Best Days
Looking back over the past ten years, Lightstone said that there are a few things about Brock that have really stood out to him. One of the things that he identified as the most significant was the relationship that he has been able to develop with student leaders.
“One of the joys of working in the senior administration of this university is the constructive relationship we have with student leadership,” said Lightstone. “It’s a gem. I hope that continues on; I think it’s a really key issue.”
He also said that the general student culture at Brock is one that he is proud of.
“On a daily basis walking through the halls; I take great pride in how welcoming an environment this is for students,” said Lightstone. “I take pride and joy in the welcoming environment we have here…. and I just enjoy experiencing it.”
Outside the context of the students, staff and faculty of the school (for whom Lightstone expressed much gratitude and thanks), he said that one of the most substantial experiences for him has been working with the Niagara community.
“The next thing that I really enjoy in the institution is working with the leaders of the Niagara community on all fronts. I think it’s very personally rewarding to have that opportunity,” said Lightstone.
Lightstone identified the opening of the Marilyn I. Walker School for Fine and Performing Arts and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and the acquirement and dedication of the statue of Sir Isaac Brock as recent moments that have made him feel satisfied and happy with the Brock community.
However, he also emphasized that these things are just concrete examples of the other ongoing things he appreciates that are going on constantly in the community on a different scale.
When asked about any other significant “days” in the life of the Brock University President over the past ten years, Lightstone gave a shout-out to whom he said have been a fantastic group of politicians (municipally, regionally. provincially and federally) who have shown dedication, commitment and advocacy towards the success of universities and Brock, saying that “some people have no idea how hard some of these people have worked for Brock.”
Lightstone also mentioned his respect for those who volunteer and donate to the school and have made the success of Brock possible through their dedication and support.
“I’m immensely grateful to the people who have supported Brock over the past ten years,” said Lightstone. “Of course, those who study here, and those who work here, staff and faculty, we have a vested interest in the university succeeding. What has floored me is that people out their in the community, who have no vested interest in the university succeeding, have invested their time, and their talents and their wealth in helping the university succeed. Just think of the generosity involved… there are volunteers who serve, who don’t get paid a cent but spend hours and hours of their time to help us succeed.”
Lightstone will serve as Brock’s president until June 30. More information about him, his office, and contact information is available at brocku.ca/president