March 28, 2014

At inauguration, Winthrop president promises to put university 'on the rise'

Winthrop University President Jamie Comstock promised Friday afternoon to put the Rock Hill school "on the rise."

Winthrop University has been “called to rise” and needs to put new energy toward marketing itself, increasing affordability for students and building its philanthropic base, President Jamie Comstock said on Friday during her inaugural address.

Comstock, the college’s tenth president, has been in office for eight months. Her inauguration on Friday was a ceremonial mile-marker in her presidency and follows a campus-wide “visioning process” she’s taken on since her first few weeks on the job.

Universities host inaugurations for new presidents as a forum for their leaders to outline their vision for their school. This week, Winthrop held an array of events to honor Comstock and invite community members onto campus.

Comstock’s speech on Friday contained few new announcements. She has already engaged the campus community over the past several months to publicly discuss several goals such as growing enrollment, beefing up marketing campaigns and finding new ways to connect with alumni to cultivate a culture of donating.

With Winthrop’s bronze presidential “chain of office” around her neck on Friday afternoon, Comstock reinforced her commitment to achieving those goals and said the university needs to “redefine excellence in public higher education.”

Excellence for Winthrop, she said, will mean “integrating access and quality” for students. One way she aims to do this is to increase the amount of need-based scholarships for students, making college more affordable. Comstock has set a goal of meeting 80 percent of students’ financial needs –– an increase from the school’s current 62 percent.

Audience members at Byrnes Auditorium applauded Comstock on Friday when she said her “bottom line” is “a future at Winthrop where students gain access and attain a degree based on their ability to learn, not on their ability to pay.”

Comstock also touched on university goals of tripling the number of students who study abroad; improving the school’s retention rate of freshmen entering their sophomore year from 73 percent to 82 percent; and lessening tuition burdens on families by seeking restoration of some state funding and reducing school administrative costs.

Throughout her nearly hour-long speech, Comstock’s message was grounded on the ideas that Winthrop has been “called to rise” and that the university has “the capacity and obligation” to open its doors to more students who achieve academic success.

Marketing strategies will be revamped, she said, to attract at least 1,000 additional students over the next four years. Comstock is part of a national contingent of higher education leaders who are looking to boost the number of adults with college degrees. She is also working toward “closing the higher education attainment gap for South Carolinians.”

Winthrop, she said, is already contributing to “brain gain” in South Carolina. Nearly 90 percent of the university’s students come from S.C. and about 38,000 Winthrop alumni stay in state after graduation. Comstock has included those statistics in her campaign for more taxpayer support from state lawmakers.

But, as the past two decades has proven, state tax allocations to universities are shrinking. Comstock says tapping into Winthrop’s alumni base will be one way to alleviate financial strains. Growing enrollment, too, she said, will help.

Students ‘receptive,’ campus ‘ready to follow’

The president’s goals are “clear and detailed” and execution will be tough “but do-able,” Winthrop trustee Bob Thompson said after Comstock’s inauguration.

She “clearly called on collaborative efforts from everyone to make it happen,” he said. “And she has the fire and the energy and the passion.”

Winthrop students have been “receptive” to Comstock’s arrival on campus and her willingness to engage with them, said freshman Lincoln Frye, a history education major from Charlotte.

“She’s going to bring about some great changes and I’m excited to see that,” he said.

For alumni Kambrell Garvin, a former Winthrop student body president, Comstock’s inaugural address painted an “exceptional vision.” Garvin was part of the presidential search committee that last year narrowed down the finalists, including Comstock, for the Board of Trustees to interview and choose from.

After seeing Comstock in action, Garvin said, “I don’t think we could have chosen a better leader for this university at this time.”

Part of the president’s success so far at Winthrop has been her ability to get others on board with plans, some staff members said on Friday.

“When she tells you what her vision is...you believe her and you’re right there with her and you’re ready to follow her as your leader,” said Joan Weir, executive support specialist in the university’s student life division.

That willingness to support Comstock’s leadership looks to be present throughout campus, said Tim Drueke, assistant vice president for academic affairs, adding that the president has “set a bold agenda.”

While Comstock’s plans will likely bring some change –– such as a new tag-line to replace the university’s “Live, Learn, Lead” mantra, which the president said on Friday isn’t “wrong, it is just tired” –– many people on campus say her new ideas are needed to move Winthrop forward.

Comstock is a president who “honors our past, realizes our present and is headed toward our future,” said Kim Keel, vice president for community engagement and impact. “She doesn’t disrespect where we are...but she’s absolutely focused on the future.”

Within the first 10 minutes of her inaugural address on Friday, Comstock highlighted Winthrop’s past, saying an “integrated approach” toward access and quality has always been part of the university’s “DNA.”

From its start as Winthrop Training School in 1886, the college offered tuition-free education for those women who could not afford the $2 monthly cost. Until 1955, Winthrop required students to wear uniforms to avoid identifiable socioeconomic differences. And, in 1964, the school’s first black student, Cynthia Plair Roddey, enrolled and earned a teaching degree.

Winthrop must continue, Comstock said, to be an institution known for “inclusive excellence.”

Now in its 128th year, Winthrop has “been called to rise,” she said, and has “answered that call with a bold, optimistic vision...

“Can we reach our rising aspirations? I believe we can. We already have momentum, and I believe we are closer than it may seem to those who have toiled here much longer than I.”

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