Winthrop issues will test new president Comstock

adouglas@heraldonline.comMarch 22, 2014 

As campus attention at Winthrop University centers around the inauguration of its 10th president this week, President Jamie Comstock will outline her vision for the college after settling into her job for the past eight months.

Winthrop, Comstock says, has reached a point where renewal is needed – a point where the school needs to stoke the fire under its brand amid fast-changing higher education trends. It’s a “strategic inflection point” that should be met head-on, she has said.

The new president is expected to share her philosophical outlook for Winthrop’s next few years during her investiture ceremony on Friday, the end of her inauguration week. The ceremony, which is open to the public, will include academia traditions typically found during the installation of a university president and end with Comstock’s address.

Comstock has already announced several campus goals and discussed those with students, faculty and staff during a series of town hall meetings and small focus groups. The campus is looking to her leadership on three key issues facing Winthrop: growing enrollment by nearly 1,000 students, bringing resolution to the football debate, and mapping the university’s role in Rock Hill’s upcoming “Knowledge Park” textile corridor redevelopment.

1. Moving off the enrollment ‘plateau’

An often-repeated goal – and likely challenge – for Winthrop during the next several years is increasing undergraduate student enrollment.

While Winthrop’s graduate student enrollment has outpaced enrollment in master’s programs at other public comprehensive colleges in South Carolina, the school’s undergraduate enrollment – 5,000 – has been flat during the past decade. Other S.C. public universities have boasted an average growth in undergraduate enrollment of 22 percent.

Comstock calls this an enrollment plateau at Winthrop, and she’s hired a new university vice president to oversee enrollment strategies.

Growing enrollment gradually by about 1,000 students, she has said, will help alleviate some budget pressures because of the drastic loss of state tax dollars affecting most public schools during the past several years. Opening the door for more students will also support Comstock’s goal of helping more working age South Carolinians attain a college degree. In 2013, South Carolina’s college attainment rate was 34.2 percent. The latest national figure available, from 2012, was 38.7 percent.

Boosting both enrollment numbers and the state’s attainment rate requires engaging with high school students before they graduate. Comstock has proposed strengthening Winthrop’s ties with local school districts and looking at initiatives such as an early college program.

Comstock supports an existing bridge program with York Technical College that eases the transfer of York Tech students to Winthrop. She has said she may want to start similar programs with other two-year schools and Rock Hill’s Clinton College.

Improving Winthrop’s retention of students after their freshman year should also help the school’s enrollment numbers. Comstock has set a goal of increasing the retention rate by nearly 10 percentage points by 2018. The rate in 2013 was 73.2 percent. Better retention efforts, she has said, will also improve Winthrop’s graduation rate and the state’s degree attainment record.

If Winthrop succeeds in attracting 1,000 more students, it will need more student housing on or around campus. The majority of the university’s buildings and infrastructure can support the growth, though. Winthrop is also likely to continue its long-standing budget request that lawmakers approve borrowing for a new library and “technology hub.”

Comstock has also said additional faculty and staff would likely be needed to serve a larger student body in order to maintain what she sees as an ideal faculty-to-student ratio of 15-to-1.

2. Vetting the ‘football question’

Though Comstock has said tackling the football question was not first on her priority list when she arrived at Winthrop, she’s vowed to fully study the issue in light of some campus and community members hopeful for an Eagles football squad someday. A decision could be made later this year.

She empowered Winthrop athletics director Tom Hickman to work with students and faculty to study both the cost and benefit of fielding a football team. Comstock also named Hickman as a member of her president’s advisory council and invited him to present his football findings to Winthrop’s Board of Trustees – a first for the athletics director at the school.

Preliminary figures show that a nonscholarship football team could net the university $1.7 million in enrollment revenue, bring in about $100,000 through ticket sales and game guarantees, and cost about $1.5 million annually.

Operational start-up costs could run nearly $500,000, and about $11 million would be needed to build new athletic facilities such as locker rooms, strength and conditioning space and coaches’ offices. Winthrop could rent Rock Hill’s District Three football stadium on South Cherry Road for $14,000 for its home games.

If Winthrop leaders opt to start the program, the university would be looking to raise millions of dollars to support the team. Some of the $11 million needed for buildings could be borrowed.

Before trustees vote, it’s expected that more football studies will take place – one such study could seek to measure the local economic impact of having a football program. Comstock has also said the university may decide to officially poll the campus with the football question.

Winthrop stands to benefit in many ways by starting a football team – mostly by helping raise the university’s profile and enhance engagement with people living in and around York County. The game’s entertainment factor could attract more students and boost enrollment – specifically male enrollment, which would balance the university’s gender ratio. Nearly 70 percent of Winthrop’s student body is female.

Comstock has not yet shared her feelings about whether Winthrop should start football, saying she’s still undecided. Students and faculty and staff members have mixed opinions, meaning a “yes” or “no” vote by university leaders on football won’t make everyone happy.

3. Expanding campus into Knowledge Park

Winthrop is poised to be one book-end of a future residential and commercial development proposed for the old Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. site, commonly called the Bleachery. The university is a key part of the proposed Knowledge Park, and its students and employees represent a major draw for companies looking to move here.

Comstock and other Winthrop leaders will need to carefully navigate state laws that regulate how public universities can spend money on construction projects and enter into lease agreements for student housing. Knowledge Park could include nearly 200,000 square feet of residential space for Winthrop students.

The private developer in charge of the project has said the buildings for student housing could cost up to $25 million. Winthrop has not yet committed to paying for any Knowledge Park buildings, nor has it signed development agreements.

University representatives met earlier this month with state officials to learn more about spending guidelines and how Winthrop can be a part of the upcoming development. In addition to student housing, Knowledge Park plans also include active adult housing – a residential community for seniors – that would have ties with many of Winthrop’s academic and extracurricular offerings.

Winthrop may also choose to open some future graduate and post-traditional student services offices in Knowledge Park. The development could also include some space for university research and visual arts and design learning.

Though initial plans for reviving the Bleachery were already in the works before Comstock’s arrival, she has said she is fully committed to Winthrop being a part of Knowledge Park. She believes the university’s and Rock Hill’s success are naturally linked.

Once retail shops, restaurants and other businesses in Knowledge Park are open, Comstock and Rock Hill officials say the development will help Winthrop achieve its desired enrollment growth and give students more off-campus entertainment choices. If the developer meets his goal of attracting high-tech, modern economy jobs, Knowledge Park will also give students valuable internship and employment opportunities.

The development is seen as a key to keeping Winthrop students in Rock Hill on the weekends and, possibly, after graduation.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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