Winthrop University board members say they were unaware of pay raises

adouglas@heraldonline.comMay 8, 2014 

Winthrop University board members say they were not consulted before President Jamie Comstock Williamson recently approved raises of $10,000 or more for at least six employees, including $27,442 for the school’s police chief and $26,192 for Athletic Director Tom Hickman.

Winthrop’s board of trustees is not required to approve the raises, but at least one board member says Williamson should have at least notified trustees of Police Chief Frank Zebedis’ 33 percent raise and Hickman’s 22 percent hike. Another board member said Williamson made an “innocent mistake” by not telling trustees.

Several trustees told The Herald this week that they will soon draft a policy giving them power to review large raises proposed by the president. Discussion of that new review process is already underway, said board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham.

Williamson, who is nearing her one-year mark at Winthrop, has created a personnel committee of three college employees to guide her staffing and compensation decisions. Winthrop officials say that committee could begin giving updates to trustees about raises.

Until this year, public colleges had to seek state approval for raises of 15 percent or more. Schools now have authority over salary increases, with some regulation of compensation levels.

In total, 88 Winthrop employees received total raises of $576,000. That’s less than the total raises approved in 2012 and 2013, before Williamson became president. In 2013, employees received total raises of $779,000, about 35 percent more than this year’s.

Zebedis’ salary, which is now $110,000, was increased when he was promoted to assistant vice president.He has been Winthrop’s police chief since 1998.

Hickman, whose salary is $144,000, received a raise after joining Williamson’s senior leadership group, called the president’s advisory council, or PAC. He’s been athletic director for 25 years.

The PAC includes 13 Winthrop employees from areas such as finance, student life, academics and athletics. The group meets weekly with Williamson.

Seven PAC members got raises, including Hickman and four others who earn at least $10,000 more than they did in 2013:

• Provost Debra Boyd makes $159,350 after a $10,000 or 6 percent raise and a promotion.

• Chief of Staff Kimberly Faust makes $100,000 after a $10,711 or 12 percent raise and a promotion.

• Vice President of Finance J.P. McKee makes $155,629 after a $14,149 or 10 percent raise.

• Associate Vice President and Director of University Relations Ellen Wilder-Byrd makes $90,155 after a $16,257 or 18 percent raise.

Two PAC members did not get raises and two others received pay hikes of $4,744 and $9,270. The other three PAC members are new employees this year. The final committee member is paid through Winthrop’s foundation.

This year’s raises for some administrators show Winthrop’s dedication to building toward a future where public universities cannot depend on taxpayer support, says Jeff Perez, Winthrop spokesman.

Besides the raises, that effort has included hiring a new leader for its new institutional advancement division, Perez said. The division is charged with fostering a “culture of philanthropy” and elevating Winthrop’s national reputation.

Williamson also hired a new vice president to oversee university enrollment – a strategic step to grow Winthrop’s student enrollment by 1,000 students over the next few years.

“Winthrop’s future depends on generating millions of dollars of new revenue,” chiefly through fundraising and increased enrollment, Perez said.

Trustees said this week that it’s not new employee salaries that have caught their attention but the pay raises that they weren’t aware of.

“I have received a number of calls from people in the community since these raises became public,” Bigham said.

Glenn McCall and other trustees say the raises – especially the two in excess of $20,000 – will be addressed in Friday’s regularly scheduled board meeting. In the past, he said, Winthrop’s president would have notified the board’s executive committee of any large salary increases.

“I definitely feel that we need to know,” McCall said.

He added that he also wanted Winthrop’s administrators to notify the board about the South Carolina law change that gave more authority to presidents over pay raises.

Had trustees known the law had changed, McCall said, the board likely would have taken action earlier to ensure Winthrop had proper “checks and balances” in place.

He pointed out that trustees have a “responsibility to the taxpayers,” even though state allocations to Winthrop have dropped drastically over recent years. Less than 10 percent of Winthrop’s budget comes from taxpayer dollars.

“We have to live with that and we have to live within our means,” McCall said. He supports the trustees giving themselves oversight of some employee pay raises.

Williamson has directly provided trustees with information during her first year on the job, Perez said, and will continue “to bring a higher standard of transparency to the university’s operation.”

The state law change that provides new authority for university presidents to approve pay raises came from a 2011 attempt to reform several South Carolina regulations that impact colleges. Perez, who was hired earlier this year, said neither he nor Williamson knew whether Winthrop trustees were told about the change three years ago.

Perez says raises for Hickman, Zebedis and others are justified because of new responsibilities they’ve taken on. He says the raises are a result of Winthrop needing to stay competitive to retain top talent.

Still, McCall says he’s had difficulty explaining the pay increases. And, he said, he’s concerned about the gap between pay for top administrators at Winthrop and the salaries of professors and other staff members.

Faculty and staff members haven’t seen across-the-board pay increases, which are approved by the S.C. General Assembly, in at least five years.

Professors, McCall said, are “on the front lines” and interact routinely with Winthrop’s students and their parents.

“I would have rather seen that half-million (dollars spent on raises) go to them,” he said.

Noting that Zebedis now makes more than York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant and Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts, McCall said, “I just cannot justify it. I don’t feel good about what has happened here.”

Watts is paid $98,034 a year while Bryant earns $101,369.

At Winthrop, Zebedis oversees a police staff about 1/7 the size of the Rock Hill Police Department and about 1/14 the size of the sheriff’s office.

Perez points to Zebedis’ responsibilities, which include being second-in-command of Winthrop’s Student Life Division and serving as a campus expert on many topics such as federal requirements under Title IX and various public safety issues.

“Chief Zebedis is considered by his peers in law enforcement to be one of the very best in his field in the nation,” Perez said.

Maintaining a safe campus environment, Perez said, is a strategic goal that will help attract and retain students.

Similarly, Hickman’s leadership in athletics is crucial to Winthrop’s reputation, he said. Two reasons for Hickman’s pay increase include his joining the PAC and recent contributions to forming the university’s five-year strategic plan, Perez said.

Additionally, the salaries for Hickman and Zebedis were adjusted after Winthrop compared their pay to counterparts at other universities. The longest-serving athletic director in the Big South Conference, Hickman’s salary now sits at the average of all the conference athletic directors, Perez said.

Though some board members say they want more oversight of pay raises, trustee Jane LaRoche said the board should be careful to not micromanage its top leaders.

“We need to let the president be the president,” LaRoche said.

The board can be a useful “checkpoint” for Williamson on many issues, she said, but with raises, it often makes sense to increase salaries to keep key employees on campus.

“We’ve got some great people and I don’t want us to lose them,” she said, adding that Williamson’s not informing Winthrop’s board about raises this year was an “innocent mistake.”

The new president, she said, is “wonderful and she’s learning fast.”

Bigham agreed that trustees need to be careful about overstepping their role as an “oversight” body.

Still, she said, in the absence of a state review process for large pay raises, South Carolina lawmakers may be expecting university boards to give oversight for some salary increases.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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