Winthrop faculty members vow to keep open mind about new president

adouglas@heraldonline.comFebruary 23, 2013 

FILE/ Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson with her husband, Larry Williamson.

ANDY BURRISS — aburriss@heraldonline.com Buy Photo

Some Winthrop University professors say they plan to keep an open mind about their next president, Jayne Marie Comstock, but they also want stronger communication with the school’s top leadership.

Comstock will succeed Anthony DiGiorgio when he retires in June after 24 years as president. Winthrop’s board of trustees unanimously elected her on Feb. 15.

Just before the vote, the trustees heard from four professors who said Comstock might not be the best fit for the school. Their concerns focused on a libel lawsuit Butler University filed in 2009 while Comstock was the Indianapolis school’s provost. The suit was filed against an anonymous blogger who turned out to be a Butler student.

Phil Moody, a fine arts professor who spoke to the board Feb. 15, says it was the first time in his 28 years at Winthrop that he’s seen substantial faculty attendance at a board meeting.

“It was in everybody’s interest to really be engaged (at the meeting),” he said. “We haven’t been for a long time for a variety of reasons.”

If he could do it again, Moody said, he would have spoken on behalf of the two other candidates still in the running instead of speaking against Comstock.

Comstock is “savvy and sensitive enough” to overcome the criticism voiced at the board meeting, Moody said, and she deserves a clean slate when she arrives in Rock Hill.

The faculty also seems ready to start fresh and be more active in university governance, he said.

Chris Van Aller, another professor who spoke before the board’s vote, said the trustees showed positive body language. They seemed to be listening while professors expressed concerns.

“I don’t know the whole story about Dr. Comstock. All I know is that there does seem to be evidence of information suppression or attempts at such and I feel, as someone who is about teaching, about teaching civil liberties, about freedom, that I had to stand up,” Van Aller said during a break in the meeting on Feb. 15.

Before the board voted, Van Aller said he felt certain faculty members would do their best with whichever finalist was chosen.

Libel lawsuit raises questions

Butler’s suit against the blogger claimed that a comment made about Comstock and others was libelous. Although Winthrop trustees said she was not involved in the decision to file the suit, the court action raised concerns among Winthrop professors about her views on academic freedom.

Faculty members also were worried about her views on sharing governance with faculty.

Comstock, director of the executive leadership group for the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., is on sabbatical from her communications professor position at Butler.

Comstock has told Winthrop faculty members that Butler’s confidentiality policy prevents her from giving details about events leading to the lawsuit because it included university personnel matters.

Glenn McCall, a Winthrop trustee, reiterated his support for Comstock last week, saying the faculty will be “pleasantly surprised” by the new president once she starts.

Besides questions about Comstock, the presidential transition also has uncovered faculty members’ concerns about their recent involvement in university leadership.

Low morale, state budget cuts, and the board’s decision in 2009 to eliminate an appeals process have combined to reduce faculty involvement, several faculty members said.

Moody said communication between the faculty and administration is useful but could be improved.

Winthrop’s administrators want the faculty’s opinion, Moody said, but it is sometimes hard to gather that opinion from faculty members. If more professors are engaged, he said, the faculty’s non-voting representative on the board of trustees might have a stronger voice with the college’s leadership.

Besides the board of trustees representative, faculty members also have a place on various university committees that have direct communication with the president and vice presidents.

Faculty morale needs a boost

Professors need a boost in morale, Moody said, which might increase engagement.

It’s not the board’s fault that faculty morale is low, but having a more inclusive relationship with trustees and the administration could help, Moody said.

A factor in lower campus morale has been the decreasing public financial support for higher education in South Carolina, he said.

Also, a smaller number of tenured professors, he said, has affected the faculty’s willingness to voice dissent to the administration. Tenured professors feel they can speak out without fear of retaliation or being fired, said Moody, who is tenured.

The fear of retaliation is real among junior professors, said Van Aller, political science professor at Winthrop.

Faculty engagement in governance has dropped off since 2009, said John Bird, Winthrop English professor.

In a by-laws revision in 2009, Winthrop removed an appeals process that allowed the faculty to formally raise objections through a two-thirds vote of the faculty’s governing body. The appeals ability gave faculty the power to object to a presidential decision.

Many Winthrop professors say they cannot remember a time when the appeals process was actually used. But losing the option resulted in faculty members having “less enthusiastic activity” in university governance, Bird said.

The board did not intend to "silence the faculty voice," he said, but taking away the appeals process seems to have had that effect.

Although the faculty never used their appeals ability, Bird said, "it was good to know we had that option."

Having an appeals ability is unusual for universities, although other avenues of voicing objections exist, said Larry Gerber, chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on College and University Governance.

The association is a national organization that works to advance academic freedom and shared governance in higher education. Gerber is a retired Auburn University professor who has written extensively on university governance.

Although an appeals process for faculty is not necessarily a common practice, removing it in 2009 might not have been the best move, Gerber said.

Because the changed involved how the faculty operates, “I think (it) would have been wiser for the board to have engaged with the faculty about their intended action and what their rationale for it was,” Gerber said.

When Bird mentioned the lack of an appeals process to Comstock during her visit to Winthrop earlier this month, her answers and demeanor left a good impression on him about how she views the faculty’s opinion, he said.

"I'm really going to keep an open mind (about Comstock) and start with a clean slate,” Bird said, adding he hopes other professors will do the same.

Presidential pick controversy not rare

The Winthrop faculty’s initial disagreement with the board over the presidential selection is “not an unusual situation,” Gerber said.

“In the last 10 or 20 years, I think, it’s becoming more the case that presidential selections become controversial on campuses,” he said.

When there’s controversy about an incoming president, he said, a wise president will try to establish good relations with the faculty and “reaffirm belief in shared governance.”

The faculty, Gerber said, should reciprocate the new president’s efforts despite the controversy.

“Unfortunately, there are occasions when a president comes in under controversy, acts pretty unilaterally right at the beginning, and relations deteriorate,” he said.

Sometimes, presidents in that situation don’t last very long, he said. In others cases, “the president may last but the institution may suffer from becoming dysfunctional.”

Asked about the controversy after her selection Feb. 15, Comstock said her plans for Winthrop remained the same.

“I will come onto the campus engaged and energized and excited about the future of Winthrop,” she said. “I will do what I know how to do in order to create positive relationships with folks and open up listening conversations.”

Board members support more engagement

Several board members said they’d welcome more involvement from faculty members.

“I always think communication is desirable,” said trustee Donald Long.

Adding faculty members to board committees in addition to having a representative on the board, Gerber said, could go a long way in improving communication.

Having faculty members on some board committees, McCall said, sounds like a “great suggestion with the new president coming in.” He and other board members noted that the full board would have to consider and then approve such a change.

Winthrop’s faculty is “a fabulous group of people,” said Jane LaRoche, a Winthrop trustee, who added she would welcome more interaction between the board, students and professors.

Faculty opposition to Comstock at the Feb. 15 board meeting surprised her, LaRoche said.

The board deliberated behind closed doors for about 45 minutes after hearing the faculty members’ comments, LaRoche said.

The professors’ comments were discussed, LaRoche said, but the board is not worried about the Butler lawsuit and feels Comstock was “an innocent bystander” in the controversy.

Much of the Rock Hill business community was behind Comstock, LaRoche said, adding that Comstock’s message “had the most insight” and felt like a good fit for Winthrop.

One board member avidly supported Braden, LaRoche said, but voted for Comstock so the new president would have unanimous board support.

Although the board’s choice went against what the four professors said they wanted, LaRoche said that doesn’t diminish the trustees’ respect for faculty.

Long echoed a feeling of similar respect for the faculty’s opinion, adding that without the professors, Winthrop would not be able to fulfill its goal of delivering a great college education for students.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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