One of the most tumultuous – and saddest – events in Winthrop University’s 128-year history unfolded Friday afternoon.
The school’s tenth president, Jamie Comstock Williamson, was suspended and given notice of her pending termination. She has the opportunity to respond on June 26, at which time Winthrop’s Board of Trustees will determine next steps. That could result in her firing.
Williamson’s presidency started out with promise and excitement. It continued with hope as she painted a vision for the university that included ambitious goals for enrollment growth, the RISE program to improve retention and graduation rates, and actions to improve the university’s visibility and brand. She hired an experienced professional to advance philanthropy, and initiated steps to create a "Great Colleges to Work For" campus culture. She exhibited seemingly endless energy as she met with students to hear what was on their minds, conducted town meetings, and held staff assemblies.
But in the end, the good that she did was marred by serious flaws in judgment that resulted in concerns and lack of trust among many of her constituents.
Within the last few months, we learned that raises of up to 33 percent were given to some Winthrop employees, including its police chief, who was brought to a higher salary level than Rock Hill’s police chief or York County’s sheriff. This was done without communicating in advance her plans to Winthrop’s Board of Trustees.
Williamson correctly pointed out that she was not required to seek approval of the raises from the board or to inform its members about the pay increases. But the smart decision would have been to ensure trustees were on board.
Soon after, Williamson approved a 40 percent increase in summer school tuition. This was not clearly communicated to faculty or students beyond posting new rates on the school’s website. Students with summer school plans were taken by surprise when registering for classes.
Then, within the last week, it came to light that Williamson’s husband had been on the university’s payroll for nine months, in a position that arguably was under her supervision, and was paid $27,000 as a temporary, part-time employee. A response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Herald for a list of Winthrop employees did not include Larry Williamson’s name even though he had been employed when the request was filed. Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez later explained the university had not thought it necessary to include the names of part-time temporary employees. The Williamsons announced on Thursday their intent to return the $27,000.
Jamie Williamson has said that Chief of Staff Kimberly Faust hired Larry Williamson and that some Winthrop trustees were aware of his employment. The president also said that Larry Williamson did not report to her.
The president said the tuition hike, like the salary increases, was within her purview. The board also was aware of the tuition increase, she said. But beyond the legal arguments, good judgment must be considered. As a president who stressed the value of communication and transparency, Williamson had a blind spot when it came to her own.
That likely added to the trustees’ concerns about her leadership, and they are responsible to the S.C. Legislature and taxpayers.
Barely a year has passed since the board unanimously voted to hire Williamson for president. Less than three months have elapsed since the week-long celebration leading up to Williamson’s investiture. Trustees need to carefully consider why the relationship soured to the point that they now intend to fire Williamson just a year after they hired her. What lessons can be learned from that selection process? How will this be avoided again?
We believe it was courageous of the board to apparently admit it made a mistake and to call Friday’s specially-scheduled meeting to decide on a course of action. After a grueling seven hours, we learned of the board’s notice to Williamson of intent to terminate her contract. The anguished expressions on the faces of several of the trustees leaving that meeting told the story. It had been an emotional seven hours.
So far, the board has not released details about its decision. The public doesn’t know if the salary increases, tuition hike and Larry Williamson’s employment were considered, whether they were the only factors, or whether there were other concerns.
While we commend the board for its prompt action, the trustees need to be more forthcoming about their decision. Winthrop is a key institution in Rock Hill and South Carolina. It is supported in large part by tax dollars. The public has a right to know in detail what happened.
Full disclosure will enable full understanding, and full understanding will lead to healing. That’s the best way for this sad chapter in Winthrop’s history to end. Despite Friday’s events, Williamson’s vision was correct. Winthrop’s board, faculty, students and supporters need to regroup, unify, and answer her call to “Dare to Rise.”