Winthrop trustees had ‘convincing’ evidence to fire president; cite loss of trust in Williamson

Just five days shy of Jamie Comstock Williamson’s first anniversary as Winthrop University president, the school’s trustees said Thursday they’d lost trust in her and found “clear and convincing” evidence to fire her.

After more than two hours behind closed doors, the Board of Trustees emerged to vote unanimously to fire Williamson. Two weeks earlier, trustees spent nearly six hours in executive session before voting 12-1 to suspend Williamson and give her formal notice they planned to fire her with cause.

Trustees named as acting president Debra Boyd, Winthrop’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. Trustees say they’ll name an interim president before starting a search for a new president.

Before firing Williamson, trustees took on an “extensive and detailed factual inquiry,” Chairwoman Kathy Bigham said, reading a statement on behalf of the board.

“Candor and trust between the president and the board are crucial for this university, and any university, to thrive,” she said. “And once candor and trust are irretrievably broken, decisions must be made to chart a different course.”

Trustees cited a section of Williamson’s contract that calls for immediate termination if the president acts in a way that “would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university.”

In a June 13 letter to Williamson, Bigham wrote that trustees believe the president lied to them, abused her authority, violated state ethics laws, and acted “rude” and “hostile” toward her staff and trustees.

Through her attorney, Williamson has denied those claims and threatened to sue Winthrop and individual trustees for breach of contract, slander and defamation. Rock Hill attorney Bev Carroll also has argued that Williamson’s contract entitled her to a 30-day written notice of any job performance issues.

Trustees say Williamson violated a part of her contract that doesn’t require such notice.

In a statement issued after trustees fired her, Williamson said it was “a very sad day for Winthrop University and me personally.” Since being unanimously hired by trustees in February 2013, she said, “I believed that I could provide the leadership to accomplish the visions that so many people shared with me.”

Williamson took office on July 1 after trustees chose her from four finalists hoping to replace retired Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio, who is now the school’s president emeritus.

Trustee Jane LaRoche – who cast the only vote in support of Williamson when the board suspended her on June 13 – on Thursday called Williamson “brilliant” and said she had brought great ideas to campus.

LaRoche voted Thursday to fire Williamson, but “my heart didn’t change,” she said. “I’m very fond of (Williamson), but I have to think about the school and other people, too.”

Before trustees voted Thursday, Mary Beth Hughes of Rock Hill, a 1974 Winthrop graduate, urged trustees not to fire Williamson. She said the president “should have been given a chance to correct her alleged infractions” before the board suspended her.

Once trustees entered executive session, Hughes said, trustees “should be ashamed of themselves” for “dragging (Williamson) through the mud” and “making Winthrop look bad.”

Williamson declined the opportunity to address trustees on Thursday. Her contract provides an avenue for third-party dispute resolution through mediation and arbitration.

Williamson “may have made mistakes,” Carroll said in a statement Thursday, but she was wrongfully dismissed “for cause” by Winthrop trustees.

Because trustees fired Williamson “with cause,” she will no longer be paid by the university, under the terms of her contract. Williamson’s annual compensation was nearly $300,000 – including a salary supplement paid by the Winthrop University Foundation, according to records obtained by The Herald.

Williamson’s arrival at Winthrop was celebrated in March with a week-long inauguration and ceremonial investiture. She pledged then to “put Winthrop on the rise” – a theme that became a tagline for her administration.

A “Dare To Rise” scholarship and education fund was created to help make Winthrop more affordable for students from low-income families. Improving the university’s ability to help students pay for college was one of Williamson’s top goals, she said early on in her tenure.

Williamson took steps toward improving relations with employees on campus by helping start a group through which Winthrop’s non-academic employees could have input on university decisions. She also advocated for faculty members to have a greater influence in decision-making and helped professors regain certain appeal powers to the Board of Trustees.

She led a campuswide discussion about whether Winthrop should start a football program, saying that could boost enrollment and relieve the financial stress that has come with stagnant student population over the past decade.

Williamson also supported initiatives to improve Winthrop’s retention of students and graduation rate. She set a hefty goal of boosting enrollment by 1,000 – to about 7,000 students – over the next few years.

Those ideas were designed to benefit Winthrop, LaRoche said after the board voted Thursday, and what Williamson “set in motion” over the past year will “continue forth.”

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