Winthrop president hopes to resolve ‘football question’ in a year

adouglas@heraldonline.comAugust 13, 2013 

Winthrop University’s new president wants to nearly double the number of students who study abroad during the next five years and says she hopes to answer the “football question” during her first year in office.

Jayne Marie Comstock, the school’s tenth president, delivered her opening address on Tuesday morning to a standing-room only crowd of employees on campus.

Tuesday marked her forty-fourth day as Winthrop’s president. She took over for long-time president Anthony DiGiorgio, who retired this summer.

Comstock has been asked many times about whether Winthrop should have a football team, she said, and the question needs an answer as soon as possible.

Most people worry about the cost of a football program, Comstock said, but she’s more concerned with how a team would enhance student engagement and meet expectations of Title IX, the federal law that ensures equal opportunity for men and women in school athletics.

“If we decide, as a community, that football is right for Winthrop, then it would be my job to raise the money to launch the program,” she said.

In an impromptu poll of the Winthrop audience on Tuesday, about half the room raised hands to indicate they don’t think the college needs a football team.

The other half expressed mixed opinions, with many raising hands to say they were unsure about football at Winthrop.

The majority of the crowd applauded when Comstock said a marching band would be a component of adding an Eagle football team.

Comstock solicited the audience’s response to football during a question-and answer session.

Many faculty members said it was the first time they’d be given the chance to ask questions after a presidential opening address at Winthrop and they appreciated the gesture.

The opportunity to interact was important, Comstock said, because she anticipated that employees might have follow-up questions or want to know about a topic she hadn’t addressed.

Throughout her address, Comstock said that shared governance over the university’s direction will be a cornerstone of her administration.

A plan to create a “staff assembly” is already underway. A staff assembly will allow staff members to organize and have their collective voices heard, she said, and employees can decide what to name the group.

Faculty members already have a “faculty conference” group and a representative to Winthrop’s Board of Trustees.

On Tuesday, a range of faculty and staff members--including custodians, professors and vice presidents--were in attendance as Comstock assured the campus that the “best is yet to come for Winthrop.”

Along with her five-year goal of increasing the number of students who travel and take classes abroad, Comstock laid out other specific challenges for the campus:

•  She’d like to help Winthrop increase its student population by about 1,000, moving past a 10-year “enrollment plateau” in which student enrollment remained flat, she said. Aggressive building projects during DiGiorgio’s administration paved the way for increased campus capacity, she said. Growing enrollment will help Winthrop overcome the drastic loss of funding from the state over the past two decades, she said.

•  Comstock wants to improve Winthrop’s retention rate, which measures how many students enroll again after their freshman year. The college’s retention rate has been on the rise but, at about 73 percent, it is worse than the average rate among universities similar to Winthrop. Comstock has dubbed improving retention rates as Winthrop’s “Goal 2018.” By 2018, Comstock wants Winthrop’s rate bumped up to 82 percent, which will also improve graduation rates, she said.

•  Winthrop’s partnership with Rock Hill schools and two-year colleges could be strengthened, Comstock said. The university recently unveiled a bridge program with York Technical College, making it easier for students to transfer. Comstock wants a similar program with Clinton Junior College, she said. The school should also focus more on attracting military veterans and older students who may be employed full-time and have children. Offering accelerated degree options, more weekend classes and online courses, she said, are a few ways to cater to a growing group of people classified as “post-traditional” undergraduate students.

In many ways, Comstock said, Winthrop is at a “strategic inflection point” of its life cycle. This is Winthrop’s 128th academic year.

The crossroads “cries out for renewal” on campus, she said.

Comstock is ready, she said, to lead the university through a time of “refreshing” its thinking and “renewing” its strategies.

On Thursday in Columbia, she’ll give her first presentation to state education officials. She’ll be lobbying for more tax dollars for specific Winthrop initiatives.

Comstock plans to “stand strong,” she said, by showing the impact of a Winthrop education, not simply asking for more money for the university.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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