Making the right choice for Winthrop

The past two years have been challenging for Winthrop University. Now, as the university goes about choosing a new president, we hope the prospects are strong for stability, progress and continuity in the high quality of education for its students in the months ahead.

The search for a new president began soon after the firing of Jamie Comstock Williamson last summer. Williamson had held the post just short of a year when the Board of Trustees relieved her of her duties.

The selection of Williamson came after a painstaking national search, the careful vetting of candidates, interviews of finalists and campus visits by each of them. That made it both painful and daunting to have to start the grueling process all over again a year later.

Winthrop reached a critical moment last week, introducing the three finalists from a 6-month search involving hundreds of prospects. This time, the winnowing yielded three men, all deans at their respective schools: Jeffrey Elwell, dean of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s college of arts and sciences; Dan Mahony, dean of Kent State University’s college of education, health and human services; and Alan Shao, dean of the College of Charleston’s school of business.

Elwell was the first to visit Winthrop this week, and the other finalists will follow with separate two-day visits over the next two weeks. Trustees plan to make their choice in mid-March, and the new president would take office by July 1.

While the selection process for the new president is similar to the last, trustees made some changes based on what they saw as weaknesses in the procedure last time. For one, they hired a new company to conduct the search.

Trustees also believed that they failed to give enough merit last time to reservations about Williamson expressed by some faculty and staff members after they had met with her. This time around, trustees say they will give more weight to the opinions of faculty and staff, who again will have the opportunity to meet each of the candidates.

We think that is smart. While no group can claim a monopoly on insight regarding the essential qualities a university president should have, members of the faculty are better equipped to gauge the finalists’ understanding of the day-to-day operations of the university, what goes on in the classroom and what it takes to sustain morale among faculty and other employees.

Of course, no process is foolproof, as the last selection demonstrated. We give trustees credit for recognizing that Williamson was the wrong choice for Winthrop and acting quickly to rectify the situation.

We hope they don’t have to do that again. And, we should add, there is no reason to suspect they will.

But some uneasiness no doubt lingers. Despite the able leadership of Debra Boyd as interim president, the university has been without a real figurehead for nearly a year.

There is real pressure to make the right choice this time.

But while no process is perfect, we suspect that trustees, faculty and all others involved in choosing the new president will be more attuned to potential problems, more aware of the personal skills needed to serve as Winthrop’s leader and ambassador, and better prepared to make the right choice.

We hope they deliberate long and hard, choose carefully and hire a president who can steer Winthrop on the right course during these challenging times.