It’s often said that the best leaders turn problems into opportunities, and when Kevin Unger began his role as vice president of administration and finance at Vancouver-based Regent College in 2008, there was no better time to prove that axiom true. He was brought on to tackle the college’s business reorganization, but his first day on the job just happened to be the same day that Lehman Brothers infamously collapsed, so he found himself with zero time to ease into his new role as endowments began to disappear before his eyes, forcing him to seek out alternate sources of funding for the school.
Within weeks of arriving at Regent, he had dived deep into its budget, jettisoning everything that was unnecessary, but the college still needed to make up for its income displacement to stay afloat. At the time, its business model, like those of most other private institutions, was heavily weighted toward tuition, with 75 percent of its income coming from student enrollment and the remaining 25 percent split between the escaping endowments and sporadic donations. Because of the top-heaviness of this tuition model, Regent was unable to react to the market’s changes.
“Typically, when there’s an economic downturn, schools actually see an uptick in their enrollment because the opportunity cost is so much less,” Unger says. “But this was different because it was a credit crisis, so people couldn’t access credit, student loans, or equity in their homes to go study.” Therefore, Unger and Regent began to introduce ideas designed to help shift the school toward a more sustainable business model.
One of the first ideas was a mixed-used residential, retail, and conference space that the college plans to build on nearby raw land that used to be a parking lot. It will be completed by 2015, and by charging rent on the building, Regent hopes to reduce tuition to 50 percent of its income—a significant decrease.
Since the recession, Unger has watched both enrollment and revenue go back up while costs continue to go down. He credits Regent’s focus on efficiency as a major contributing factor, but he also notes that the school has worked hard to rebuild its brand. The college has created a film-based course called ReFrame that captures the Regent experience in 10 40-minute episodes, and the college’s faculty members are actively increasing the number of public-speaking engagements they host both at the university and around the globe in order to broaden the reach of Regent’s name. The school has also revamped its online presence and garnered several awards in the process.
Facts & Figures
Years since Regent College’s founding, in 1968
Full-time faculty at the school
Annual operating budget
Alums around the world, in more than 90 countries
Percentage points by which
Regent hopes to decrease its reliance on tuition revenue
The revamp wasn’t without some hard choices, though. “Higher education is terrible at scaling itself; it’s not like we’re building widgets and you can just shut off a machine,” Unger says, noting, as an example, that whether the college has 100 or 10,000 students, it still needs a registrar. So, instead of focusing on what it couldn’t change, the school doubled down on the IT side. It eliminated most third-party software and built its own proprietary programs, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings and a more efficient and streamlined system.
Unger’s career, by his own admission, has been an unexpected adventure. Before he joined Regent, he worked his way up the hotel industry in Banff, Alberta, going from night shifts at a front desk to oversight of nine hotels, a handful of restaurants, and all accompanying retail spaces. Now, after six years of straightening out Regent’s financial structure, he’s moving on again to the next adventure, supporting his wife by following her to London, where she plans to go back to school.
“My career has been just following my curiosity and seeing where it takes me,” Unger says. He’ll soon be an ocean away, but his contributions will be shaping Regent for years to come, and hopefully he’ll continue transforming problems into opportunities.