Winthrop staff: Fired president yelled at, bullied employees

08/09/2014 4:46 PM

08/12/2014 8:34 AM

Three days before she became Winthrop University’s president last year, Jamie Comstock Williamson yelled at school employees for not having enough file folders, threw an item against a wall in Tillman Hall, and made one campus employee cry, according to an employee statement given to the school’s trustees.

The encounter inside the president’s office is one of about 12 incidents reported to Winthrop trustees before they voted unanimously to fire her on June 26, less than a year after she took office, according to documents recently obtained by The Herald.

Reasons cited by the board for firing Williamson include that she “engaged in explosive, berating, demeaning, hostile, condescending, rude and other unprofessional behavior” toward staff, faculty and trustees.

In response, Williamson’s attorney wrote in a letter in June that some board members aren’t comfortable with “a woman who is direct in her approach.”

In a statement to The Herald on Friday, attorney Bev Carroll of Rock Hill did not say whether Williamson denies any of the employee statements. The Herald sent Carroll copies of the records cited in this article. In the past, Carroll and Williamson have denied the trustees’ claims.

Trustees never showed Williamson documentation of the employees’ complaints, Carroll said. “Instead, she was provided two letters that included a cursory summary of her purported transgressions after the board suspended her.”

In the records, it appears that most of the employee accounts of Williamson’s behavior were compiled by Winthrop trustees around June 13 – the day of a 12-1 vote to suspend the president. Two weeks later – in a unanimous vote – the board fired her.

Carroll says a group of “executive employees” were waiting in a nearby room at Winthrop on June 13 “prepared to speak on Dr. Williamson’s behalf” to trustees. “The entire Board could have called in any one of them to discuss any concerns,” she said.

The employee statements about Williamson include allegations that the former president publicly reprimanded at least one Winthrop staff member and that she yelled at employees during staff meetings about her schedule being too crowded.

The Herald obtained the employee statements under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. In releasing the records on July 31, Winthrop redacted the names of employees who made statements and those identified in statements from other employees. Winthrop cited privacy concerns as the reason for excluding the employees’ names.

Trustees say they spoke this year with about 10 employees who shared their experiences of working for Williamson. The employees claim that Williamson had “explosive outbursts,” verbally abused her staff, and at times acted angrily or unprofessionally in front of students, parents, alumni and visitors.

One employee reported taking a $5,000 pay cut and a different on-campus job after working for Williamson less than four months. That staff member wrote to trustees that the president had “a bully approach to most everything,” by using “intimidation, harassment and fear.”

The president’s actions or words resembled age discrimination and created a “hostile work environment,” according to the employee’s written statement.

Williamson is accused of yelling at employees on multiple occasions at work, in front of other people. One employee told trustees that Williamson’s anger often was caused from her being upset about her schedule or certain office procedures. On one occasion, she yelled at an employee about the way Christmas card envelopes had been addressed to Williamson’s family members, according to the documents.

In a June 16 letter to the board, Carroll said Williamson “is not concerned with stroking personalities.” The attorney also claimed that Williamson at one point was told “that her direct manner was not suitable to her now Southern setting.”

Williamson may sue, Carroll has said, for breach of contract, slander, defamation and breaches of fiduciary obligations.

Employee: ‘I cried all the way to the car’

Before officially taking office on July 1, 2013, Williamson moved to her on-campus home and began preparing her office in Tillman Hall.

On June 28, three days before her official start, the president asked for 100 hanging file folders, but staff members only had 30 on hand, one employee wrote to trustees. They couldn’t buy more, according to the statement, because university credit cards cannot be used toward the end of the fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

The university records accuse Williamson of yelling at one employee that she was “so disappointed” and “I need 100 (folders) now.” The president was also upset that she didn’t have garnet pens with the Winthrop logo, according to the statement.

Employees told Williamson that they didn’t have the specific pens she wanted. The statement says she replied, “Well we must, they were in my gift bag when I was interviewed.”

An employee wrote: “She kept telling me how disappointed she was, how inept I was as I knew she was coming. I kept saying, ‘I will get them for you.’ ”

The statement continues, “Jamie stomped into her office, threw something across the room and it hit the wall Her husband Larry yelled ‘enough.’ ” Board records do not specify what Williamson allegedly threw.

The employee told trustees that later on June 28, Williamson apologized, including at 5 p.m., when the staff member was leaving. The employee wrote: “I cried all the way to the car. Never have I been treated so disrespectfully by upper management. She was not even officially employed. We begin working with the new president with fear and intimidation.”

Less than three months later, the same employee claims that Williamson grabbed him or her by the arm and pulled the employee into an office to yell at the employee. There, Williamson is accused of putting the employee in a corner and yelling about her presidential calendar.

The employee wrote: “I left the office extremely upset and went to another office to get away from her. She grabbed my arm and I was not certain what would follow – she was so angry.”

The university’s documents also show that another employee described Williamson’s behavior with her staff members as “grossly and frighteningly out of control.”

Another employee said the “fear of such outbursts limited the quantity and nature of contributions” they made during PAC meetings – which were weekly work sessions with Williamson and her appointed group of senior Winthrop advisers.

Williamson had ‘meltdown’ over scheduling

Trustees say they interviewed several staff members who worked closely with the president. Some employees gave verbal statements to the board during meetings on June 13 and June 26.

In a letter to The Herald, Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez said some trustees also told fellow board members about encounters with Williamson.

Board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham told The Herald last week that Williamson’s “personal conduct was part of, but not the only basis for,” her firing.

Bigham said she could not comment further because trustees will soon start mediation with Williamson. Dispute resolution or mediation is a right granted to Williamson in her Winthrop employment contract.

On Friday, Carroll told The Herald that “Dr. Williamson has no desire to debate this matter in the press. She looks forward to the mediation.”

Other employee statements provided to the board include:

• An April 11, 2014, meeting where the president became upset about her busy schedule and “began crying and screaming, ‘Do you people know what you are doing to me? How can I possibly do all of this stuff? I’m not even wearing underwear today, because I haven’t even had time to do my laundry this week.’ ”

The employee statement describes the behavior on April 11 as a “meltdown” and also wrote, “I never attended a single events committee meeting in which (Williamson) did not yell, cry, or leave the room in a tantrum.”

At the meeting, the employee claims that Williamson complained about needing to attend a ceremony for Winthrop students who bought class rings. She was also upset about a community luncheon where she felt she was being used as a “prop” or “potted plant,” according to the employee’s statement.

• A May 7, 2014, university event where Williamson allegedly became visibly upset when her husband interrupted a conversation she was having. An employee statement claims that the president and Larry Williamson were in a receiving line in McBryde Hall to greet Winthrop’s distinguished graduates.

The employee wrote that nearly every student wanted a picture taken with the president “and she was being very gracious to take pictures with them.” Mistakenly, one student was skipped.

The student asked Larry Williamson if she could take a photo with the first couple. When he approached the president to ask her, “Jamie literally turned around and glared at him,” according to the employee statement.

The president “told him in an angry loud whisper that she would be there in a minute,” the employee wrote. Later, she “grabbed Larry by the shoulders and clenched her teeth and began telling him how rude he had been to interrupt her,” according to the statement.

• An Oct. 10 dinner and student theater event at the President’s House where Williamson allegedly yelled at university catering employees over dirty dishes. An employee wrote that he or she witnessed the president enter the kitchen with a dirty dish and complained “very loudly and angrily” that someone on staff was not properly clearing used plates from the table.

Later, Williamson – who was “still angry” – asked the Winthrop staff member if the catering employees “intentionally wanted her (to) look bad in front of the trustees.” The employee says he or she “explained to her that (catering employees) didn’t want to interrupt the performance by walking through the crowd to remove the dirty dishes.”

Winthrop HR’s action unclear

Several of the employees who submitted statements to board members said they were sad and emotionally affected by Williamson’s behavior.

One employee included that he or she had had “many positive interactions” with Williamson. That employee wrote that he or she had felt supported by the president and that Williamson at times had shown a “desire to make Winthrop a better place.”

Others wrote that Williamson would sometimes explain her actions or behavior as resulting from a misunderstanding or miscommunication between herself and the employees involved.

It’s unclear whether Winthrop’s human resources department ever received complaints from employees or ever investigated Williamson during her employment.

The Herald asked Bigham whether any employees reported concerns about Williamson to Winthrop’s human resources department any earlier than June 2014. She said she could not answer that question.

The Herald obtained Williamson’s personnel file on June 25 and found no documentation of employees lodging complaints against the president. In the board’s records released last month, only one employee mentions preparing to submit concerns about the president to the human resources department.

Later, the employee said he or she received from a co-worker a copy of Winthrop’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies because they had heard “verbal abuse” and felt it created a “toxic environment.”

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