Ideas from faculty and staff members at Winthrop University are needed to help set the “trajectory for the institution,” President Jayne Marie Comstock said this week as she hosted three days of town hall meetings – the first of its kind that many at Winthrop remember.
Comstock met with about 50 people each time during three events on campus, outlining a set of questions and goals that she says will eventually form a renewed vision for Winthrop.
English professor John Bird, faculty representative to Winthrop’s Board of Trustees, said he sees Comstock’s invitation to employees as refreshing because university planning is often “top-down.”
The president listened more than she spoke, he said, and took good notes on faculty and staff members’ suggestions.
Bird was excited to see that the campus community’s ideas are part of Comstock’s leadership style, he said.
Comstock was chosen to lead Winthrop in February by a unanimous vote by the trustees. Her predecessor, Anthony DiGiorgio, retired at the end of June after serving as Winthrop’s president for 24 years.
Some Winthrop faculty members voiced concern at the board’s selection meeting, saying then that they were concerned Comstock wasn’t a good fit for the school.
The topic of “shared governance” on campus was a concern many faculty members raised during the board’s selection process.
After Comstock was picked, faculty leaders said they would keep an open mind with their new president and that they wanted to have a more active role in the institution’s decision-making process.
On Wednesday, Bird attended a town hall meeting with the president and colleagues.
Now less than 100 days on the job, Comstock made a “good start” by deliberately opening a line of communication with faculty and staff, he said.
“It’s very encouraging that President Comstock is opening up the conversation to faculty and staff as we make our move into the future,” Bird said.
And, the topics of discussion at the town hall meetings, he said, were vital to charting Winthrop’s next few years.
The president plans to develop workshops around many of the ideas discussed this week, she said, to promote more faculty and staff involvement.
“I think the last thing that the institution needs is a vision created by a committee of one,” Comstock said.
High on Comstock’s topics list was enrollment growth and making Winthrop more accessible to more students.
Some employees suggested making Winthrop’s marketing strategies more rigorous and trying to attract students from diverse backgrounds.
Winthrop’s minority student population is about 38 percent of its overall population. But, within the “minority” category, an overwhelming majority of those students are black.
One person this week in the meeting described the statistics as showing “not much diversity within the diversity.”
Comstock also covered affordability and tuition costs during the meetings. Earlier this year, she set a goal that Winthrop move toward meeting 80 percent of undergraduates’ financial need to attend college.
Some faculty members suggested that the university could have stronger ties with high school students in Rock Hill. Winthrop already has admission counselors assigned to every ZIP code in South Carolina and one counselor assigned to every state.
Creating more pathways for people to obtain a college degree is just as important as recruiting more students to come to Winthrop, Comstock said. And retaining those students once they’re enrolled should be a top priority for the school, she said.
Over the next five years, she wants to up Winthrop’s retention rate to 82 percent from 71 percent.
Some students leave after one or two years, she said, because of the cost of college.
It’s a “point of pride” for Winthrop that it serves a high number of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, Comstock said.
Finding more financial aid for those students will have to happen in order to keep many of them, she said, adding that she believes it’s primarily her job to find money to achieve that goal.