Roar writer Helena Kudiabor gives a brief biography of King’s controversial Interim President, Professor Evelyn Welch.
Following the departure of the King’s College London President Sir Edward Bryne, Professor Evelyn Welch took on the role. Her position as President is temporary; in June 2021 she will be replaced by Shitij Kapur, who will occupy the role indefinitely.
Aside from her role as Interim President, she is also the Senior Vice President for the department of Arts & Sciences, and a Professor of Renaissance Studies. Once she graduated from Harvard in 1981 with a BA in Renaissance history and literature, she received her PhD from the Warburg Institute in London. Following this, she taught at various universities in the UK including the University of Sussex and Queen Mary University of London. Her interest in Renaissance history led her to working with the Victoria & Albert Museum as they developed their “Europe, 1600-1800” gallery. She also sits on the British Library advisory board. Aside from her academic work, she is the mother of Florence Welch, the lead vocalist of the indie rock band Florence and the Machine.
Welch first came under widespread criticism following the report published surrounding the 2019 Bush House security incident. At the time, Queen Elizabeth had come to visit King’s, however many student activists were unable to access campus during the visit, leading to allegations of discrimination. Welch was acting Principal at the time and formally apologised. However, she was criticised by many students for only doing so four months after the incident took place, and for prioritising royal over student welfare.
Welch became the interim President during the Coronavirus pandemic, and her handling of the situation has further angered many students. Numerous students have reported their frustration about the fact that tuition has not been reduced despite the poor quality of online teaching; these frustrations were shared at a town hall run by KCLSU. Welch stated that the university cannot afford to provide tuition refunds due to the added expense of online learning.
Many students shared personal stories of feeling isolated and stuck in London, technological issues with King’s online learning platform, Keats, and even demanded proof that the university cannot support a tuition reduction. In response to these concerns, Welch said that students are “not getting nothing” and “you’re still getting your degree”. The latter statement courted widespread anger, with over 85% of King’s students disagreeing with this statement in a survey conducted by Roar.
Welch’s latest brush with controversy came following her comments about the statue of Thomas Guy. Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, over 15,000 King’s students signed a petition calling for the removal of the statue of Thomas Guy, due to his links with the slave trade in the 17th century. Guy made approximately £400 million in today’s money through shares in the South Sea Company which sent slaves to Spanish colonies. While speaking at a History Matters conference, Welch opposed the removal of the statue and said students who wanted it to be removed should just “walk around the statue”. 75% of the King’s students surveyed by Roar stated that they disagreed with this statement, with one student criticising her for reducing the work of King’s historians to “mere aesthetics”.
Welch’s comments have been met with disgust from many King’s students, with over three-quarters of students saying Welch’s comments about the statue and student refunds made them feel negatively about King’s. Students described her comments as “dismissive, gaslighting’’ and reflective of her “small world view”. Many pointed to Welch’s comments as reflective of King’s as an institution, with one student believing that Welch is “the reflection of what is hidden in the institution…a terribly racist [university]” and another calling Welch’s comments “illustration of the endemic apathy of its senior staff towards the welfare of students”. The current pandemic has forced both staff and students to adapt to online learning, and King’s is not the only university to receive criticism for its handling of the situation. One would hope that Welch takes the time to listen to student’s concerns to improve not just King’s response to online learning during the pandemic, but the university as a whole.