The Winthrop University Board of Trustees acted quickly and decisively in voting unanimously to fire Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson Thursday. It was the only realistic course of action for the board after it voted June 13 to suspend her and to serve notice that trustees intended to fire her.
That suspension was accompanied by a letter endorsed by the trustees accusing Williamson of lying to and misleading them, providing false and misleading information to faculty and staff, abusing her authority as president, violating the state Ethics Act and university policies, and engaging in inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.
The letter specifically accused Williamson of repeatedly engaging in “explosive, berating, demeaning, hostile, condescending, rude and other unprofessional behavior.”
Williamson was offered a chance to address those accusations at Thursday’s meeting but chose not to. However, through her lawyer, Rock Hill attorney Bev Carroll, she denied all allegations against her. She also has threatened to sue Winthrop and the trustees for breach of contract, slander and defamation.
The board obviously lost trust in Williamson, which meant that reconciliation was impossible. In a statement released after Thursday's vote, the board noted that “once candor and trust are irretrievably broken, decisions must be made to chart a different course.”
Much of the blame for the lack of trust falls on Williamson. But Thursday's firing also serves as an indictment of the process that led to her hiring less than a year ago.
Williamson’s termination occurred four days before the one-year anniversary of her selection as Winthrop’s 10th president. It also comes less than three months after a lavish, week-long inauguration ceremony during which the board seemed eminently content with having chosen her for that role.
We can only speculate as to what went wrong in the long search process that led to a choice that the board came so quickly to regret. And we can only hope that trustees will carefully review that process, take an introspective look at their own actions and work to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated as the board seeks a successor.
Winthrop Provost Debra Boyd has been named acting president, and she is likely to encounter some difficulties in coming weeks. We trust, however, that she will have the support of the administrative staff, faculty and students in guiding the university through this challenging period.
Issues remain in the dispute between Williamson and the board that might not be resolved for some time. Nonetheless, Winthrop undoubtedly will focus its attention on its primary mission, educating its students.
Despite this setback, the university community must work together to see that the institution not only survives, but thrives.