Winthrop President

Winthrop board member believes presidential finalist’s link to Butler University libel suit not an issue

A finalist for Winthrop University’s presidential post was the target of an anonymous blogger’s post that led to Butler University filing a libel suit against one of its students in 2009.

The university dropped the suit after learning that the anonymous blogger was a student.

Jayne Marie Comstock, one of four finalists vying for Winthrop’s top seat, was Butler University’s provost when the university filed suit against an anonymous blogger, claiming he made libelous and defamatory comments.

After details of the lawsuit came to light, the blogger, Jess Zimmerman, went public with his identity and the university stopped pursuing legal action. Butler, not Comstock, filed suit against Zimmerman.

Winthrop’s presidential search committee chose Comstock last month after receiving more than 100 applications from people interested in succeeding President Anthony DiGiorgio’s position.

The search group’s leader says Winthrop has looked into the lawsuit and feels “very comfortable” in Comstock’s selection as a finalist.

Comstock replied to The Herald’s questions by e-mail on Tuesday night, saying she preferred that Winthrop’s search group leader, Kathy Bigham, answer specific questions about the Butler lawsuit.

The events leading to the lawsuit against then-student Zimmermann happened during Comstock’s first semester at the Indianapolis university.

While still anonymous, Zimmermann wrote on his blog that Comstock and Peter Alexander, then-dean of Butler’s College of Fine Arts, acted “inappropriately and inexcusably” during the dismissal of Andrea Gullickson, then chair of the Butler’s School of Music.

As details about the blogger’s identity unfolded, the campus community learned that Gullickson is Zimmerman’s stepmother.

Inside Higher Ed, a website covering news from colleges and universities around the nation, reported in 2009 that “Zimmerman took down the blog after receiving an e-mail (to his anonymous account) from the university’s lawyer noting that it was pursuing charges against him.”

Winthrop’s search group learned while vetting all its finalists, that Comstock did not personally sue the blogger and that Butler did not know the blogger was a student at the time it filed suit, Bigham said.

Comstock is now on sabbatical from Butler, serving as director of the American Council on Education’s Executive Leadership Group. To take the role, she stepped down as Butler’s provost in 2012 to become a communications professor at the university.

The Butler lawsuit, Bigham said, had nothing to do with Comstock going on sabbatical last year or stepping down as the school’s provost.

The lawsuit “has not shaped” where Comstock is in her career at this time, Bigham said.

Winthrop’s search group spoke to numerous student leaders and Butler officials, both former and presently at the university, Bigham said.

Butler’s Board of Trustees members especially, she said, hold Comstock in “high regard.” Comstock was named Butler’s interim president at one point following the libel lawsuit controversy.

All finalists, Bigham said, were thoroughly vetted and were asked whether there were “any issues that could be potentially embarrassing to them as a candidate.”

Comstock and every other finalist, she said, were “forthcoming” about incidents that could need explaining on their behalf.

“We admired that,” Bigham said.

Comstock was not treated ‘differently’

All finalists--the others are Jeff Braden, from N.C. State University, Elizabeth Dale, from Drexel University and Ulysses Hammond, from Connecticut College--were given the same amount of time in interviews and treated exactly the same, Bigham said.

The search committee talked with Comstock about the libel lawsuit, Bigham said, but “did not treat her any differently.”

What they heard from Comstock in relation to the Butler lawsuit, Bigham said, proves that she can address the case and other issues professionally and openly.

“She is a strong supporter of free speech and academic freedom,” Bigham said. “She also believes, as we do, that civility is important in a democratic society.”

Comstock told Bigham she’s willing to answer questions about the Butler lawsuit while she’s on campus this week.

She will be in Rock Hill on Wednesday afternoon to begin a three-day official visit with members of the community, Winthrop students and employees and members of the media.

Bigham said she expects people at Winthrop may want to talk to Comstock about the libel suit.

She estimates that the search committee called at least 20 people during reference checks on each finalist. The calls went out to people listed on the presidential candidates’ reference list, Bigham said, and to people chosen at random by the search group.

The details that Winthrop learned about the Butler case show that Comstock’s university was left with “no choice” but to sue the then-anonymous blogger, Bigham said.

Winthrop, she said, is confident in their finalist choices.

The Butler incident, Bigham said, “shouldn’t be an issue but it’s been made an issue.”

“We feel so strongly about our process because it’s been so thorough,” she said.