Winthrop University trustees on Friday afternoon suspended President Jamie Comstock Williamson and said they intend to fire her.
The board’s 12-1 vote came after a nearly six-hour closed-door meeting in the university’s DiGiorgio Campus Center.
Trustees gave Williamson, who took office less than a year ago, a notice of termination with cause. They also offered her the right “to be heard” and to respond to the board’s concerns later this month. After the board’s vote, Williamson quickly left the third floor of the DiGiorgio center and was not available for comment. Trustees declined to comment in detail beyond a statement read by Chairwoman Kathy Bigham.
“Trustees are aware of public concerns and questions about certain matters at Winthrop,” Bigham said.
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“We want to be sure that President Williamson has every opportunity to respond to those concerns in a comprehensive manner before we consider what, if any, next steps should be taken.”
The action came less than three days after The Herald and heraldonline.com reported that Williamson’s husband, Larry, had worked for nine months in the president’s office as a part-time, temporary employee. Her office said some board members were aware of Larry Williamson’s employment. The Williamsons announced on Thursday that they had returned Larry Williamson’s $27,000 salary.
President Williamson had been criticized in recent months for increasing the salaries of several top staffers by 10 percent or more and for the way students were informed about a 40 percent increase in summer tuition.
Board members stressed that Williamson was not fired on Friday, only suspended and given notice of termination. To fire the president, the board likely would need to vote again. Williamson has a chance to address the board on June 26 at 10 a.m.
Williamson and her senior-level advisory team were present for the trustees’ vote. After the board decision, she hugged Debra Boyd, Winthrop’s vice president for academic affairs and provost. Boyd will serve as the university’s acting chief executive officer.
Boyd is a former Winthrop dean and English professor who Williamson promoted to provost soon after she began as president on July 1, 2013.
Trustees did not elaborate on Friday on what they deemed “cause” to issue the termination notice. Williamson has heard “the basis for the termination for cause,” Bigham said. The president met with the board behind closed doors for nearly an hour before trustees voted in public. Only Jane LaRoche, the alumni association’s board representative, voted no.
Board Vice Chairman Karl Folkens called all of Friday’s meeting “very emotional.”
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, applauded the board for “taking swift action” and being “hands on.”
Simrill said he’s heard concerns from the public and relayed those messages to Winthrop board members. Simrill is also a Winthrop graduate.
He’s heard questions, he said, about the pay raises, which included a 33 percent increase and promotion for Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis and a 22 percent raise for Athletic Director Tom Hickman.
Trustees said Williamson approved the raises without consulting them. The president’s staff has said Williamson was not required to seek approval for the raises or notify the board.
Williamson has said pay raises for Winthrop employees are routine every year and that the ones she approved this year were well-deserved by staff members.
Some community members are also concerned by the summer tuition hike, Simrill said. The Herald reported last month that some professors and students were upset when they were caught off guard by the increase.
The hike pushed the cost of one three-hour class to $1,260 – up from $897 last year. Still, the university’s summer tuition is among the lowest in the state.
Though the new tuition rate was published on the school’s website before summer class sign-ups began, that didn’t result in the information “trickling down as would have been most desired,” Williamson said last month.
In response, Williamson met with concerned employees about the way the summer tuition increase was communicated to the campus. She pledged to improve communications.
Most recently, Simrill said, he’s heard serious concerns about Larry Williamson’s employment from Sept. 1 to May 31. Jamie Williamson’s staff members have said Larry Williamson was hired by Kimberly Faust, chief of staff and secretary to the Winthrop board. State ethics laws were followed, officials said, because Williamson did not directly report to the president.
But the couple returned Larry Williamson’s salary to avoid any appearance of impropriety, according to a statement from Jamie Williamson.
“As president, I believe I must set a standard even greater than compliance with the law and hold myself to higher values grounded in honesty and integrity,” she said.
“I will not allow even the appearance of wavering from those values.”
South Carolina’s Ethics Act, which governs Winthrop officials and other public employees, says no public employee may “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to a position in which the public employee supervises or manages.”
Simrill said some recent news about the university has been “troubling.” Friday’s board action, he said, “shows how the system is intended to work.”
University presidents answer to their schools’ trustees, he said. And those trustees are elected by the state legislature.
State lawmakers like himself, Simrill said, are accountable to taxpayers. Some taxpayers, he said, are concerned about Williamson’s actions, and legislators have heard those questions.
Some of the concerns, he said, are issues of “trust” between the president and the board.
He added that “no one person is more important than the university itself. ... I stand by the board.”
On Friday, Winthrop student Matthew Kreh said he can’t be sure whether the board acted appropriately because he doesn’t have enough information about the president’s actions.
He learned the news through social media on Friday afternoon and was very surprised, he said. Kreh, a junior, says Williamson has done an “overall good job” during her 11 months at Winthrop.
She has many great ideas, he said, but some students are “uncomfortable” with how quickly she’s seemed to implement them. Williamson has been a visible president, Kreh said, which is “extremely positive.”
Williamson was selected unanimously by Winthrop’s board in February 2013 to replace long-time president Anthony DiGiorgio, who retired last summer.
As president, she quickly began holding meetings with students, faculty and staff to start a “visioning process” that she said would help put “Winthrop on the rise.” The “rise” theme became a tagline during her presidency, as she sought to gradually increase the university’s enrollment by 1,000 students over the next four years.
Williamson also quickly started a staff assembly group that many people on campus applauded for giving campus employees a stronger voice in decision-making. Over the past 11 months, she also tackled Winthrop’s “football question” and said she and the board have been working toward deciding whether adding a football team is right for the school.
Winthrop celebrated her leadership and the school’s history nearly three months ago during a special week-long inauguration for the new president. Williamson has a five-year contract with Winthrop and her starting salary was set at $169,970.
Her contract states that any “termination with cause shall be effective immediately and (the) president shall have no right to compensation or benefits after the effective date of termination” except unpaid salary for work already done and accrued vacation time.