Winthrop University presidential hopeful Jayne Marie Comstock says she’s been preparing her entire career to take on the role of executive officer of a college.
“I have determined that everything in my background has prepared me to lead Winthrop at this time,” Comstock said.
“Winthrop’s DNA and my DNA come from the same strand.”
At her core, and Winthrop’s core, Comstock said, is a commitment to liberal arts education.
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Comstock is serving as director of the American Council on Education’s Executive Leadership Group while on sabbatical as a organizational communications and leadership studies professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. She’s previously served as provost at Butler and as the school’s interim president twice.
Before arriving at Butler, Comstock was vice president for academic affairs at Millikin University in Illinois and vice president and dean at Baker University in Kansas.
Deciding to make a presidential run, she said, requires asking yourself whether you can make a difference at the school and whether the university’s board of trustees will let you do your job.
Comstock is confident that “the best is yet to come” for Winthrop and feels comfortable with the university’s board of trustees, she said.
During the vetting process of presidential finalists at Winthrop, Comstock has come to know the board members “as friends,” she said.
“One of the things I’ve realized is the board wants a president who is going to move the institution forward, and the board is definitely not only going to let the person do their job but (will be) rallying around that person ... so that the new president can be successful in the transition.”
She and her husband, Larry Williamson, have both worked in higher education throughout their 15 years of marriage, Comstock said. Their life together, she said, takes place on campus, attending campus events such as performing arts and sporting events.
“But of course, we also have a life,” she said.
“We enjoy spending as much time as we can with our family, we are highly invested in international travel, we have a love of the outdoors and spend as much time outdoors as we can. ... We spend a lot of time on the beaches and the Gulf Coast of Florida.”
Her husband spent much of his life in Pensacola, Fla., and they have extended family members who live in South Carolina.
“Larry is very, very glad that we might have the opportunity to move back to the South,” Comstock said.
The presidential finalist wrapped up a three-day visit to the campus on Friday before returning to Washington, D.C.
At a news conference on Friday afternoon, Comstock responded to a question about Butler’s libel lawsuit against an anonymous blogger in 2009.
The blogger – who later revealed that he was a Butler student – targeted Comstock and other university staff members, criticizing their handling of a personnel issue involving his stepmother.
The lawsuit involved a personnel matter, Comstock said Friday, and Butler’s policy prohibits her from speaking publicly about the details.
Butler didn’t file the lawsuit against a student, she said. The lawsuit against an anonymous blogger was a “John Doe” filing, which the university dropped when officials realized the blog’s author was a student.
Comstock also spoke Friday about issues in higher education and what she would do as president at Winthrop:
Should Winthrop have a football team?
She is open to the possibility of Eagles football, Comstock said.
“One of the things I know for sure is that the university president doesn’t make that decision on his or her own,” she said. “So I actually consulted with (Winthrop’s) athletic director (Tom) Hickman and I asked what his feelings are about that topic because it’s something that’s noticed from the outside coming in that there is no football program.”
“So we had a nice conversation about it, and I understand that’s he’s open to that (football) conversation as well.”
In her college administration career, Comstock has been responsible for oversight of athletics.
“In those experiences, I learned that there are very strong contributions that athletics make to a university. And, of course, one of those is the vibrancy that it brings to a campus – and a football program would add to that vibrancy.”
Athletic programs help universities recruit and retain students, Comstock said. At Winthrop, student-athletes boast some of the highest graduation rates, she said.
The challenge, she said, is “the expense that’s associated with adding a football program.”
“And I think that’s where all of us come down. ... To add a football program at this point in time for Winthrop would be expensive. We would have to weigh both sides of the ledger to see if now is the right time for that to happen.”
What are your thoughts on online courses, and how technology is changing the traditional university setting?
Comstock’s experience while leading a working adults academic program and working with online classes at Saint Louis University convinced her of the merit of online-based learning, she said.
She was skeptical at first, Comstock said, but found that technology can make college more convenient for students, especially nontraditional student who are more likely to have full-time jobs and children.
“There’s a segment of the population that we could not serve” without technology, Comstock said.
Online learning can be productive, she said, if computer-based learning is combined with personal engagement with professors in the classroom.
What do you think about Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to allocate taxpayer dollars to universities based on a college’s performance?
Performance-based funding, Comstock said, is not a new idea in the world of higher education – the first phases of such initiatives started in the late 1970s.
“One of the nice things about this new resurgence in performance-based funding is that we can learn from that experience,” Comstock said. “And states are moving in that direction. And in some ways, I think it’s very appropriate to do so.”
Two of the most important parts of performance-based funding criteria, she said, are access to a quality education and student completion or graduation.
“There needs to be a level of funding that allows institutions to advance quality while at the same time, promote access and attainment.”
A “one-size-fits-all model” is probably not best for South Carolina, she said, because state colleges vary in their missions and academic programs.
How will you engage with students?
“One of the things I’ve done as an administrator is that I’ve maintained my teaching portfolio,” she said. “Every year, I teach one class. And that makes it possible for me to stay close with the students – at least one set of students.
“What happens over the years, of course, is the student populations change and their interests change. So I think it’s very important to be able to have some one-on-one interaction with students in the educational environment.
“Teaching also helps me make sure that I remember that first and foremost, I’m an educator, not an administrator. That guides the decisions that I make and everything that I do.”
If chosen as Winthrop’s president, how long would you stay?
“The average time for a university president is about eight years – but I think I’ve got a few more than that left in me,” she said. “If the relationship continues the way I think it might, then I think we might have a decade or more.”