Winthrop trustees draw support for decision to suspend president

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 14, 2014 

— Winthrop University trustees’ vote to suspend and consider firing President Jamie Comstock Williamson drew support on Saturday from a former board chairman, a state senator and a professor at the university.

Though trustees aren’t giving details about their reason for suspending Williamson on Friday and notifying her of their intent to fire her, the former chair of the Winthrop board, Dalton Floyd, says he’s confident trustees studied the issues thoroughly before voting.

Floyd, an attorney from Murrells Inlet, was chair of the Winthrop Board of Trustees last year when the university hired Williamson to replace retiring president Anthony DiGiorgio. After six years of service as a trustee, Floyd resigned from the board last summer.

Williamson was given notice of the board’s “termination with cause” just 17 days shy of her one-year anniversary on the job. Floyd told The Herald on Saturday that he can’t recall any past board decision “of this magnitude about a president.”

While he does not know details of the trustees’ issue with Williamson, he said the board has a “relationship of trust and confidence” with students, employees and the community.

The board’s 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.

Winthrop trustees only said in a prepared statement on Friday that they “are aware of public concerns and questions about certain matters at Winthrop.”

Board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham added: “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.”

In making the decision on Friday, board members likely consulted with attorneys because there are legal issues and an employment contract between Winthrop and Williamson, Floyd said.

The board met behind closed-doors for nearly seven hours total on Friday before voting 12-1 in public session.

Williamson has not been available for comment since Friday.

Until further notice, trustees have appointed Winthrop Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Debra Boyd as the university’s acting chief executive officer.

“I have a lot of confidence in (Boyd),” Floyd said, adding that if the board votes to fire Williamson, he hopes Winthrop officials seek DiGiorgio’s advice afterward.

Trustees emphasized they did not fire Williamson on Friday, saying she has a chance to respond to the board’s concerns. Officials said Williamson has the option of addressing trustees in executive session or publicly on June 26.

Floyd described Williamson’s taking the helm at Winthrop as “difficult” because she succeeded a longtime, successful president.

“It’s a very difficult transition because things have been done a certain way for some time,” he said.

Winthrop trustees would likely have preferred to not fire Williamson after less than a year as president but “that’s just a hard responsibility they have,” S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, told The Herald on Saturday.

Board members have a “serious responsibility” to the university, he said, adding that “the importance of Winthrop goes far beyond York County.” The school “has been and will continue to be a source of pride” in South Carolina, Hayes said.

He doesn’t know the trustees’ exact reason for taking action against Williamson but said “whenever you have a spouse that’s a paid employee, particularly in the same office, that’s going to raise concerns,” Hayes said.

Williamson has also faced criticism 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.

Hayes said he has confidence in Winthrop’s trustees and any action they may take.

“We’ve got some very good people on that board,” he said.

Winthrop political science professor Stephen Smith also supported the trustees’ leadership but said he doesn’t know any details about the issues the board had with Williamson “other than what I’ve read in The Herald’s coverage.”

Smith was one of four faculty members who, before Williamson was hired, raised questions to the board about whether she was the best fit for Winthrop. Trustees acknowledged the professors’ concerns but said then they were confident they’d chosen the right leader from a field of four finalists.

On Saturday, Smith gave “immense credit (to the board) for its willingness and courage to revisit a decision it made a year ago and, if the facts warrant it, to reverse that decision.”

Trustees last year arrived at their decision to hire Williamson after putting in great “care, consideration, time, energy and resources,” said Winthrop graduate Kambrell Garvin, a former student body president who served on the university’s presidential search committee.

Williamson’s suspension, he said, is “unfortunate for all parties.” Garvin says he’s been “impressed with the direction that (Williamson) has sought to take the university, through her ‘visioning process.’”

He added that he’s glad Williamson will have “an opportunity to present her case” later this month. In describing Winthrop trustees, he said, “They just aren’t the sort of people who make knee-jerk decisions but rather a committed group of public servants who have the university’s best interest at heart.”

Garvin says he hopes the “two parties can come together and do what’s in the best interest for our beloved alma mater.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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