August 22, 2014

Winthrop board to faculty: Next president decision set for spring

Winthrop University could name its 11th president within the next eight months and the search for candidates will begin regardless of whether the former president’s complaints against the school lead to a lawsuit, officials said on Friday.

Winthrop University could name its 11th president within the next eight months, and the search for candidates will begin regardless of whether the former president sues the school, officials said on Friday.

Discussion of the upcoming presidential search process could start as early as Monday, when the board is scheduled to meet. It’s possible that former President Jamie Comstock Williamson’s mediation could begin within two months, but no specific date has been set, Kathy Bigham, chair of the Winthrop Board of Trustees, said on Friday.

If mediation is unsuccessful, the dispute could move to arbitration or to a trial, she said. Until a permanent president is chosen, Winthrop’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Debra Boyd, will serve as acting president.

At the university’s first faculty meeting of the new school year on Friday afternoon, some professors asked about the upcoming search and events that led to Williamson’s firing on June 26. Bigham and faculty leader John Bird both said they’re restricted on what they can share about Williamson’s departure because of possible litigation.

Bird, an English professor, is the elected faculty representative to the Board of Trustees. He participated in two private executive sessions in June when trustees discussed the allegations against Williamson.

During one executive session, the board spoke with Williamson and offered her the opportunity for a follow-up hearing, which she declined. Through her attorney, she has threatened to sue Winthrop for breach of contract and individual trustees for slander and defamation.

She was fired amid trustee allegations that she lied to the board, broke South Carolina ethics law and mistreated employees. Williamson has denied those claims and argued that Winthrop officials unjustly dismissed her, breaking the terms of her five-year contract.

In response to some faculty questions about the board’s claims, Bigham said the campus and community already know many details because of local media reports. Under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, some reporters have obtained the board’s records related to allegations against Williamson.

The state’s FOIA law seeks to ensure that public documents and meetings are available to the public and the press. As a public university, Winthrop’s records and its board meetings are considered open to the public, with some exceptions.

Since Williamson was suspended, The Herald has filed more than 10 records requests under the FOIA law to obtain details about the president’s time at Winthrop and her firing. Because of the FOIA law, “you know a lot,” Bigham told professors, adding that the board “has been as open with the media as we could be.”

Enrollment growth still planned

On Friday, Bird told his colleagues that he was unaware of any issues with Williamson until the board called a special meeting on June 13. He says he entered that meeting believing the president had brought positive change to the campus.

Early in Williamson’s tenure, she helped Winthrop faculty members win back some governance power by supporting their call that the board reinstate an appeals process. The process allows professors to appeal directly to trustees when unhappy with a presidential decision.

Williamson also championed the establishment of a staff assembly to give Winthrop’s non-teaching employees a voice in campus decisions. That group held its first meeting of the school year on Tuesday.

The former president was also credited last year with drumming up support for a growth plan for Winthrop, which school officials say will continue to be important. Williamson set a goal of growing student enrollment by 1,000 people during the next four years.

On Friday, Boyd, the acting president, said “other goals cannot be accomplished until we have a right-size student body.”

Winthrop also needs to focus on keeping students past their first two years, she said. She reported on Friday that the university’s retention rate has improved heading into the current school year.

And, she said, “we anticipate slightly up or flat enrollment” this year.

Boyd encouraged Winthrop faculty to see themselves as contributing to the university’s recruitment and retention goals. This year, she said, she plans to eat often in the campus cafeteria to talk with students, and she hopes professors will join.

To learn how best to attract bright students and keep them at Winthrop, she said, “we need to listen to them.”

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