Winthrop names woman new president

adouglas@heraldonline.comFebruary 16, 2013 

— Butler University’s Jayne Marie Comstock will be Winthrop University’s 10th president – the second female president in the college’s more than 125-year history.

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to offer the job to Comstock during a meeting Friday.

Before the vote, four faculty members expressed their concerns to trustees that Comstock might not be a good fit for Winthrop. No one spoke in favor or against the other two finalists, Jeff Braden from N.C. State and Ulysses Hammond from Connecticut College.

Winthrop started the search for its 10th president after Anthony DiGiorgio said in March that he would retire this June after serving 24 years as the university’s leader.

Four finalists recently visited campus for three days and met twice in Charlotte for in-person interviews with the school’s 10-member search group. One finalist, Elizabeth Dale from Drexel University, dropped out late Thursday night.

“We believe strongly that Dr. Comstock will lead us positively into the future,” said board vice chairwoman Kathy Bigham just before trustees voted Friday.

James C. Williamson Jr., alumni representative to the board, said he solicited “fairly aggressively” former student opinion about all of Winthrop’s presidential finalists.

“One hundred percent of the people who contacted me were in support of Dr. Comstock,” he said.

One professor, Stephen Smith – a political science professor who has taught for 23 years at Winthrop – told the board he “strongly feels” Comstock should not be Winthrop’s president.

Her involvement in a libel lawsuit against a blogger at Butler, Smith said, could bring negative national media attention to Winthrop.

During a campus visit this month, faculty members asked Comstock about the lawsuit.

Her explanation and rehashing of the details, Smith said, proved she is moving “backward,” not forward from the lawsuit and the events that led to the suit.

“This is perhaps the best evidence that Dr. Comstock is not past the event at Butler and the event is not past her,” he told the board.

The lawsuit was filed as a “John Doe” suit, against an anonymous blogger who made Comstock and other Butler administrators the target of his criticism.

The university sued the blogger but eventually dropped the suit when the writer revealed he was a Butler student.

Comstock has told The Herald and many people on campus that she cannot comment on the lawsuit or the events that led to it because of Butler’s strict confidentiality policy.

The suit has been publicized for years and “at best will serve as a distraction” at Winthrop with Comstock as president, Smith said.

“At worse, it will serve to undermine all of Dr. DiGiorgio’s work,” he said.

After listening to three other faculty members express concern over Comstock’s potential to be Winthrop’s next president, the board met behind closed doors for less than an hour.

When trustees returned to vote, Bigham made a motion that the board select Comstock as Winthrop’s next leader. Several board members seconded the motion at about the same time.

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

Comstock, through a Skype Internet web camera, accepted the job just moments after the vote.

She is expected to schedule a return trip to Rock Hill in the near future to formalize the agreement, once the state Agency Head Salary Commission approves a salary for her.

Trustees recommended a state salary of $169,970, the same as DiGiorgio’s current state salary.

Comstock, currently director of the Executive Leadership Group for the American Council on Education (ACE) in Washington, D.C., is on sabbatical from Butler University in Indianapolis, where she was provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Prior to her work at Butler, Comstock was the chief academic officer and professor of communication at Millikin University and Baker University. She also held administrative and faculty posts at Saint Louis University and the University of West Florida.

The issues raised at Friday’s board meeting about academic freedom, student press rights and faculty governance were also topics of discussion during Comstock’s two visits with faculty earlier this month.

At least 50 people attended each question-and-answer-style meeting with the presidential hopeful.

During Comstock’s visit, faculty members asked her specifically about faculty governance and free speech in light of publicized criticism stemming from the Butler lawsuit.

Comstock was Butler’s provost at the time of the suit and is described in the lawsuit as being the target of an anonymous blogger’s criticism.

Most of what has been written about the lawsuit, Comstock told Winthrop faculty, is not the entire story.

As an academic administrator, she said, she is “very sensitive” to the views of students, faculty and staff members. At Winthrop, she said, she would support establishing a staff leadership assembly – something faculty members currently have but staff members do not.

Many of those in attendance at the Feb. 7 with Comstock applauded when she said she’d support establishing a group for staff governance.

On Friday, Comstock said that implementing a staff governance group is something hopes to achieve as Winthrop’s president.

“I feel that shared governance is very important and I feel that all the constituencies on campus should have a voice,” Comstock said.

“When you have faculty with a voice and students with a voice and the staff don’t have any sort of collective voice, there’s a piece missing. I think it’s important for us to make sure that the staff have a voice.”

A student publication, Comstock said, is a “absolutely wonderful laboratory” for students.

In college, she wrote for the campus newspaper and remembers interviewing Rosalynn Carter when Jimmy Carter was running for president.

Later, as a professor, Comstock taught journalism basics and media ethics to undergraduate students. As an administrator at Baker, she helped faculty members and students draft a policy that guaranteed student journalists would have free speech and freedom of the press.

“Not only did I have that major but then I was teaching reporting. So as I moved through my career and had the opportunity to have leadership positions, I wanted to be part of universities that understood that it was important to allow students to have a free press.

“Now, of course, you also want to have those opportunities for learning after the article’s come out. And there’s leadership that goes over the articles to think about how they could have been better.

“The student newspaper is supposed to be an educational experience for the students and I think that’s what it is at Winthrop.”

At Winthrop, Comstock will be make up a small percentage of female presidents at South Carolina public and private universities.

Out of all non-profit SC colleges and universities, 12 institutions have female presidents--about 5 percent--according to data on the state Commission on Higher Education’s website.

Three of those female presidents lead four-year public colleges. The majority of female presidents in S.C. lead two-year technical schools or private institutions, according to the CHE data.

Nationwide, the proportion of female college or university presidents increased from 23 to 26 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to a ACE’s study called “American College Presidents,” which is conducted every five years.

Comstock noted the increase since 2006, saying “But that still means that most university presidents are men.”

“I am pleased and proud to be among the women in our country that are achieving the goal of becoming a university president.”

Winthrop selected the finalist who they believe is the most qualified presidential candidate, Comstock said.

“It just happened to be a woman and I’m very glad it was me.”

Winthrop has had one female president in its history.

Martha Kime Piper became Winthrop’s president in 1986, the university’s centennial year. She died while serving at Winthrop after less than two years as the school’s president.

Piper was the first female president to lead any four-year, state-supported college in North or South Carolina. Her Winthrop ties date back to the college’s early years when her grandmother worked on campus as a “house mother” for D.B. Johnson, the school’s first president. Her mother and her sister attended Winthrop as students.

At ACE, Comstock said, she’s been working to advance the cause of bringing more diversity to universities’ top office.

About 65 percent of Winthrop’s student population is female and the university was historically a female-only campus.

“It’s nice they can look at their new president and see that women can achieve these high-ranking leadership roles.”

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

Comstock shares thoughts on getting started later this year at Winthrop:

Does the criticism voiced by professors at the board meeting on Friday change anything about her plans at Winthrop?

As Winthrop’s president, will she continue Anthony DiGiorgio’s and the university’s work to bolster Rock Hill’s “college town” atmosphere?

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