A finalist for Winthrop Universitys presidential post was the target of an anonymous bloggers post that led to Butler University filing a libel suit against one of its students in 2009.
The university dropped the suit after learning that the anonymous blogger was a student.
Jayne Marie Comstock, one of four finalists vying for Winthrops top seat, was Butler Universitys provost when the university filed suit against an anonymous blogger, claiming he made libelous and defamatory comments.
After details of the lawsuit came to light, the blogger, Jess Zimmerman, went public with his identity and the university stopped pursuing legal action. Butler, not Comstock, filed suit against Zimmerman.
Winthrops presidential search committee chose Comstock last month after receiving more than 100 applications from people interested in succeeding President Anthony DiGiorgios position.
The search groups leader says Winthrop has looked into the lawsuit and feels very comfortable in Comstocks selection as a finalist.
Comstock replied to The Heralds questions by e-mail on Tuesday night, saying she preferred that Winthrops search group leader, Kathy Bigham, answer specific questions about the Butler lawsuit.
The events leading to the lawsuit against then-student Zimmermann happened during Comstocks first semester at the Indianapolis university.
While still anonymous, Zimmermann wrote on his blog that Comstock and Peter Alexander, then-dean of Butlers College of Fine Arts, acted inappropriately and inexcusably during the dismissal of Andrea Gullickson, then chair of the Butlers School of Music.
As details about the bloggers identity unfolded, the campus community learned that Gullickson is Zimmermans stepmother.
Inside Higher Ed, a website covering news from colleges and universities around the nation, reported in 2009 that Zimmerman took down the blog after receiving an e-mail (to his anonymous account) from the universitys lawyer noting that it was pursuing charges against him.
Winthrops search group learned while vetting all its finalists, that Comstock did not personally sue the blogger and that Butler did not know the blogger was a student at the time it filed suit, Bigham said.
Comstock is now on sabbatical from Butler, serving as director of the American Council on Educations Executive Leadership Group. To take the role, she stepped down as Butlers provost in 2012 to become a communications professor at the university.
The Butler lawsuit, Bigham said, had nothing to do with Comstock going on sabbatical last year or stepping down as the schools provost.
The lawsuit has not shaped where Comstock is in her career at this time, Bigham said.
Winthrops search group spoke to numerous student leaders and Butler officials, both former and presently at the university, Bigham said.
Butlers Board of Trustees members especially, she said, hold Comstock in high regard. Comstock was named Butlers interim president at one point following the libel lawsuit controversy.
All finalists, Bigham said, were thoroughly vetted and were asked whether there were any issues that could be potentially embarrassing to them as a candidate.
Comstock and every other finalist, she said, were forthcoming about incidents that could need explaining on their behalf.
We admired that, Bigham said.
Comstock was not treated differently
All finalists--the others are Jeff Braden, from N.C. State University, Elizabeth Dale, from Drexel University and Ulysses Hammond, from Connecticut College--were given the same amount of time in interviews and treated exactly the same, Bigham said.
The search committee talked with Comstock about the libel lawsuit, Bigham said, but did not treat her any differently.
What they heard from Comstock in relation to the Butler lawsuit, Bigham said, proves that she can address the case and other issues professionally and openly.
She is a strong supporter of free speech and academic freedom, Bigham said. She also believes, as we do, that civility is important in a democratic society.
Comstock told Bigham shes willing to answer questions about the Butler lawsuit while shes on campus this week.
She will be in Rock Hill on Wednesday afternoon to begin a three-day official visit with members of the community, Winthrop students and employees and members of the media.
Bigham said she expects people at Winthrop may want to talk to Comstock about the libel suit.
She estimates that the search committee called at least 20 people during reference checks on each finalist. The calls went out to people listed on the presidential candidates reference list, Bigham said, and to people chosen at random by the search group.
The details that Winthrop learned about the Butler case show that Comstocks university was left with no choice but to sue the then-anonymous blogger, Bigham said.
Winthrop, she said, is confident in their finalist choices.
The Butler incident, Bigham said, shouldnt be an issue but its been made an issue.
We feel so strongly about our process because its been so thorough, she said.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068