August 16, 2014

Winthrop’s acting president preparing to set positive tone as classes start

As Winthrop University begins its 129th academic year this month, the school’s acting president says she wants to set a happy, hopeful tone during the campus’ traditional opening ceremonies.

As Winthrop University begins its 129th academic year this month, the school’s acting president says she wants to set a positive tone during the campus’ traditional opening ceremonies.

Debra Boyd, a former English professor who rose through Winthrop’s ranks during the past 30 years, will find herself at the speaker’s podium this year as the university’s temporary president. She was named acting president on June 26 after Winthrop trustees fired President Jamie Comstock Williamson.

On Tuesday, Boyd will speak to Winthrop’s faculty and staff at the university’s annual opening address. On Aug. 25, she’ll preside over Winthrop’s traditional Convocation and Blue Line processional.

Accustomed to being in the audience or a member of the platform party at past Winthrop events, Boyd says she realizes that this year many people on campus are looking to her for guidance. But, she’s quick to say the ceremonies aren’t about her and that Winthrop, as an institution, is more important than any one person.

Celebrating traditions, she said, is “really about all those people sitting in that auditorium.”

University presidents often use opening academic year speeches to “set the tone” for the campus, Boyd said. Her focus will also be to express gratitude, she said.

Tuesday’s faculty and staff address – which is typically a standing room only event in McBryde Hall – will be held in Tillman Auditorium this year. The room will likely be packed, which prompts a true-academic response from Boyd, saying lightheartedly: “I’ll look out and think ‘Wow, that’s a large class out there.’ ”

Although Boyd said she cannot comment on Williamson’s firing, she acknowledged that some people in the crowd may feel uncertain or upset about what’s unfolded during the past few months on campus.

In June, trustees first suspended and later fired Williamson after alleging that she lied to board members, violated state ethics laws and mistreated at least 10 Winthrop employees. Williamson, Winthrop’s 10th president, had been on the job less than one year. Board of Trustees records show that Williamson is accused of yelling or mistreating staff members on at least 12 occasions.

The student experience at Winthrop, Boyd said, has not been damaged and will continue to be exceptional.

Now is the time, she said, to remind the campus and the larger community about Winthrop’s mission, its positive impact on higher education in South Carolina and the quality education it provides students. She hopes the message connects with her audience. “We’re all there for the same reason – because we’re committed to Winthrop.”

During some speeches, she said, it’s possible to see “flashes of the kind of emotional connection that the speaker has with the audience.” While addressing large groups of people on campus over the next two weeks, Boyd says she expects to feel that connection with the professors, staff members and students in the audience.

“What you feel is that you want to do so much for all these people and the work they’re doing ... You hope that people will see that that’s what you’re trying to do.”

This time of year is exciting and busy for a university campus, Boyd said. In light of the ex-president’s firing, Winthrop needs to “take a deep breath and see where we are and move forward,” she said.

But, “taking a deep breath does not mean being motionless ... We are going to be very strategic and very focused in what we do.”

Boyd says her opening address and other public remarks during the next two weeks will touch on some university-wide initiatives or plans. But largely, she said, Winthrop needs “to have broader conversations” about any major changes or new strategies before decisions are made.

Boyd has a surprise “visual aid” planned for Tuesday, hence the move from McBryde to Tillman Auditorium this year. Winthrop has also moved up one hour its Convocation ceremony in Byrnes Auditorium and the annual picnic afterward. The event, to begin at 3 p.m. Aug. 25, is open to the public.

Boyd and her husband will lead faculty, staff and freshman students in Winthrop’s Blue Line from Byrnes to the campus’ front lawn near Oakland Avenue.

The campus is prepared for a successful new academic year, Boyd said. And, she says Winthrop’s leaders at many levels are reviewing the past year, as is always done.

“We really are a great learning community,” she said. The focus is to “always be learning, always be growing ... And that is the perspective that we take into the new year.”

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