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Confusion at King’s

Unexpected layoffs have shocked the student community and prompted an open letter asking for transparency.

“You’re a name, not a number.”

This slogan was often quoted when I started at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta in 2014. I enrolled because of the small class sizes, the faculty to student ratio and the tight-knit community. I look back fondly on the courses I took where students and the professors were passionate about the subject. We could joke around with the professors, have deep discussions about the course content, and ask them for advice and guidance on life problems or how to navigate our academic careers. I felt like I could walk into anyone’s office and have a good conversation.

Then, in February, I heard news that surprised me. King’s laid off three staff and one faculty member: Dr. Tetyana Khramova, Kathleen Busch, Shannon D’Agnone and Dr. Neal DeRoo. Khramova, Busch and D’Agnone all held positions that influenced the student experience at King’s, and DeRoo was a tenured philosophy professor.

The real shock came when I looked for more information about the decision. The news of the layoffs was broken to the community through an article in the school newspaper The Chronicle, written by a student. The school newspaper received an anonymous tip and instructions to print the story. “We students were never officially told about [the layoffs]; it came through rumours,” says Rachel Boone, editor for The Chronicle, “It should have come from the university, but they showed no intention of telling students.”

A sense of betrayal

Anika Stork wrote the breaking article. Stork reached out to King’s president Dr. Melanie Humphreys for clarification on the anonymous tip. On Stork’s initiative, Humphreys’ response was included in the article. Stork explains, “The excerpt from Dr. Humphreys was and still has been the only formal open comment that the administration has made in regards to the entire situation.” In it, Humphreys explained the need to produce a “conservative and balanced” budget for the Board, mentioning the layoffs in her concluding sentences: “Regretfully, the requirement to minimize our proposed operating budget deficit meant that we needed to lay off four employees. Great care was taken to ensure that we could maintain programs and services to students despite these reductions.”

But the immediate response of students wasn’t to question whether they lost resources; they expressed shock at the drastic move being taken without forewarning. “It seems out of character for the university to go about it this way,” says Boone. “When you hear about it from word of mouth, you don’t get the whole picture, you don’t understand why it’s happening,” says Adrian Bajaro, president of the King’s Students’ Association.

The four individuals laid off were all heavily involved with the students. Dr. Neal DeRoo, a tenured Philosophy professor, proved himself as a valuable part of the King’s community. DeRoo played an active role in The King’s Helping Hands, a club dedicated to improving the community through volunteer work, and contributed to multiple mental health awareness events. In addition to his active involvement in the King’s community, DeRoo is a tier two Canada Research Chair, one of only two at King’s. The appointment to a research chair position is a prestigious honour, and comes with a sizeable research grant. Grants are critical for furthering a professor’s research and career; they help pay for research assistants and resources, both of which can benefit the university.

“They don’t need to tell us all the details, but to give some sort of justification or a heads up,” says Boone. “I trust that they put due thought and reason into the decision, but there’s lots of confusion and sadness about it. There’s almost a sense of betrayal – how could they do this to us without explaining or even telling us?”

A petition for change

Late last year, King’s received an anonymous 20 million dollar donation for the development of their Centre for Excellence in the Sciences building. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2024. The expansion of the science faculty will increase the courses offered and implement new programs, making King’s more competitive. However, when this wonderful news is mixed with rumours of layoffs due to financial concerns, it creates a dichotomy. And that confusion hasn’t been cleared up, says Boone.

The donation may have been earmarked specifically for building, but if so, the university could communicate that in a town hall meeting and end the speculation, says Bajaro. Bajaro co-authored an open letter to the King’s administration calling for increased communication and transparency. The petition has 160 signatures so far, with most of the signees being current students or recent alumni.

“King’s has never been in the firmest of financial situations, but whenever we’ve had budgetary situations, we as a community figure out other ways of resolving that – staff take a budget cut or temporary layoffs or furloughs, nothing like this,” says Bajaro, whose position as president of the student’s association allows him to sit in on council meetings and get an inside look at the running of King’s.

Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic put a lot of financial pressure on businesses, including King’s. “We recognize that the university has a valid point in saying ‘we needed to do something, we can’t be operating at a deficit,’” says Bajaro, who says the open letter is meant “as a constructive critique.”

Layoffs are a common practice in business for maintaining stability in times of financial stress, and King’s does have a policy in place to allow for the termination of a tenureship in the case of financial exigency, though they have found ways around needing to enact it in the past. But if King’s is about to become a university where layoffs unfortunately do happen, there needs to be improvements to the checks and balances and accountability.

“There are policies that guarantee a sense of consultation when layoffs do happen, but consultation doesn’t mean collaboration,” says Bajaro, “That’s the issue that lots of students and faculty are feeling disgruntled with the university about. It seems like a lot of these systems in place are check marks or rubber stamps. It went through all these steps, therefore it is legitimate.”

King’s isn’t required to consult the student body on their decisions. It’s not commonly done in other universities. But King’s isn’t a large university with dozens of faculty and thousands of students. They’ve advertised themselves as different, and we, students past and present, expect more from them because of that. “To love one and another and exist in community, only for that community to be uprooted?” says Boone. “It will take a while for King’s to heal from this.”

Christian Courier contacted King’s University administration for comment, but did not hear back before this article went into print. 

Author

  • One of CC's board members, Sarah is originally from Surrey, B.C. She completed her undergraduate degree at The King’s University, and now lives in Halifax to work on a PhD in Biochemistry at Dalhousie University. She plans to specialize in medical genetics, and one day study rare genetic diseases.

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