“The past few years we’ve done significant work to improve,” Dr. Humphreys says, “so we can continue to grow faculty, staff, students, etc – but a global pandemic got in the way.”
In May, Christian Courier published an article about the recent layoffs of four valued members of the King’s University community (“Confusion at King’s”). I interviewed current King’s students who expressed their confusion over the abrupt decision and the apparent lack of clear communication from the university’s administration. A few weeks after submitting the article for publication, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Melanie Humphreys, King’s president and CEO, or “Prez Mel,” as she’s known on campus.
We first discussed the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the institution. King’s navigated the global crisis well, but they were still faced with a glaring question: will students come back to in-person classes?
“We set our own course as an institution,” said Humphreys. King’s worked hard to maintain the tight-knit community while they offered online classes. They worked to accommodate everyone ‘to the nth degree,’ she added, and they actively considered students’ mental and physical wellbeing. But many challenges remained.
To help explain the situation, Humphreys provided me with an overview of the budget. King’s receives three significant sources of funding: from the government, donations and tuition. Government money is decreasing and donations from the community help King’s “flourish,” but the most significant revenue is in tuition and fees. In spite of the pandemic, King’s enrollment remained steady. . . until this January.
The pandemic had a delayed effect at King’s. Many students delayed their studies, and King’s saw a record number of students graduate in December 2021. Due to unexpected complications of international travel and visas, there were significantly fewer international students beginning in January. When transitioning to in-person learning, King’s implemented a vaccine policy. The majority of the King’s community is vaccinated; however, a few students decided to step away because of this policy. Other students chose not to return because of the switch to in-person learning, amounting to 71 students backing out. This left King’s with a significant deficit and a looming March deadline to present the board of governors with a balanced budget.
“We looked for ways to make it work, budget-wise,” said Humphreys. Deans, managers and directors were pulled in and consulted; salaries and benefits were negotiated; Humphreys herself visited with donors to search for extra revenue. It was a challenge, and the King’s administration realized that layoffs needed to happen if nothing else worked. “I don’t believe [that] you get to flourishing through cutting, but we had to in this instance.”
When recalling the process that led to the decision, Humphreys admitted that it got a little “messy.” They had a month to balance the budget, and many different factors to consider: no program could end or be significantly impacted, and the workload of the departments couldn’t increase drastically should a member be laid off. “We tried every option to not take that action [layoffs],” recalled Dr. Humphreys, “I don’t ever want to go through this again. It was some of the hardest months that I’ve ever experienced in my role [as president].”
As emphasized in the previous article, a tight-knit community is a crucial part of King’s identity as a university. Open communication between students, faculty and staff is what sets King’s apart from other post-secondary schools. To that end, King’s has been hosting governance workshops; these give students, staff and faculty the opportunity to learn how decisions are made, how they can be improved, and where their voices are. Humphreys has offered a town hall for the student community to explain the layoffs, and suggested that an online annual town hall for alumni could improve communication around decisions moving forward. Despite multiple opportunities for student involvement, these events frequently have low attendance. It is a frustrating dilemma that exists in many universities: “It’s a balance of both discovering ways to communicate, and helping people understand what their responsibility is for accessing that information.”
Humphreys reflected on her global experiences in Christian education: “King’s is unique in its way of engaging the world and helping students engage. It’s not afraid of asking hard questions or being welcoming to the ‘Other.’ That starts with student faculty relationships, and layoffs hit that sense of flourishing.”
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