By Jiggs Gallagher, December 14, 2016: The abrupt resignation of Pacific Union College President Heather Knight on December 6 took many by surprise. But apparently it has been percolating for months, if not years.
One well-placed source, familiar with the situation, says that a PUC Board-inspired “360-degree evaluation” of the president last summer—a common process for top administrators—“went very badly” for Knight. “Considerable dissatisfaction with her management style and actions over the past few years was found. Her top-down approach to decision-making , her extreme self-confidence and ego had been evident during the seven years of her presidency” said the source. “She has long been unwilling to listen to concerns of parents, faculty, students and staff.”
Enrollments at the Adventist college in California’s Napa Valley rose about 11 percent in her first year, perhaps a fortuitous event for an incoming president. The numbers grew again, to reach a peak in 2013. The positive trends led Knight to undertake several significant building and renovation projects running into millions of dollars. “She tends to spend a lot of money,” said the source.
However, enrollment declines of 40 in 2014 and more in 2015 were capped by a larger than usual graduating class in 2015, which was followed by 110 fewer students the following fall. This resulted in a $1 million deficit during the current school year, combined with a previous $4 million in red ink. Knight’s chief financial officer resigned in January of 2016, and the college’s controller resigned soon after. The crisis bodes that there may be “significant layoffs” in the coming year to right the budget problem. While private higher education declines in enrollment have been noted as a national trend in recent years, the significant PUC levels gave overseers pause.
Another source says that a May 23, 2016 board meeting brought issues to a head. Several department chairs wrote a letter indicating displeasure with the president’s actions in a number of areas, including breaching academic freedom, particularly in Psychology and Social Work. Several faculty in that department took retirement or resigned in protest of Knight’s interference in teaching methods and classroom discussion of lesbian and gay rights and other church orthodoxy issues. The chairs warned that if conditions didn’t improve, there could be a formal vote of no confidence in the president by the faculty senate. So far, that has not happened.
“Another problem was massive tuition discounting instituted to keep enrollments level,” added the first source. “This increased the college’s deficit further.” Even so, students continued to rack up high levels of student debt. Figures this year indicate that PUC students and graduates have the sixth highest undergraduate student debt in the United States, averaging $44,000 per student, compared to a national average of about $36,000.
U.S. News’ annual College Ranking publication had placed PUC in the top 10 percent of bachelor’s degree-granting colleges in the Western Region for 17 consecutive years. But the magazine’s most recent ranking dropped PUC from the top 10 percent. It did move the college to a different category, that of liberal arts colleges.
A memo to the college community from PUC Board Chairman Brad Newton, who is also secretary of the Pacific Union Conference of SDA, indicated that an interim president will be selected soon, and after a national search, the board hopes to choose a permanent replacement by July 1, 2017. Newton expressed confidence that the college will see better days in 2017 and beyond.
Jiggs Gallagher is a senior editor of Adventist Today.