Winthrop trustees to meet Thursday to consider president's employment

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 25, 2014 

Jamie Comstock Williamson

Winthrop University’s Board of Trustees can fire suspended President Jamie Comstock Williamson without giving her 30-days notice under some provisions in the president’s contract, the board chairwoman told The Herald on Wednesday.

Trustees will meet Thursday to decide whether to fire Williamson. Nearly two weeks ago, the board voted 12-1 to suspend Williamson and give her notice of “termination with cause” amid the trustees’ allegations that the president has violated the S.C. Ethics Act, lied to trustees and acted in an “explosive” and “hostile” manner toward campus employees.

Williamson’s attorney argues that trustees have violated Williamson’s contract by moving to fire her without giving her a 30-day notice to “cure” any problems with her job performance.

Board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham pointed out on Wednesday that Williamson’s contract only provides a right to a 30-day notice if trustees only find that the president has violated her duties or refuses to perform her job “in good faith” and to the best of her ability.

Other contract provisions allow for immediate termination by a board vote if the president’s actions “constitute moral turpitude” under state law or bring “public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university.” Bigham says a 30-day notice is not needed if trustees decide to proceed with Williamson’s termination with cause under this section of her contract.

Other parts of Williamson’s contract say the board can fire the president “with cause” if she violates any Winthrop bylaws or university policies that she’s been “given a reasonable opportunity to comply with.”

The Herald obtained on Wednesday Williamson’s personnel file from Winthrop under a Freedom of Information Act request. The records do not include any disciplinary actions or complaints about the president except for the board’s termination notice letter, written on June 13.

Bigham did not say what the board plans to do at its Thursday meeting.

Trustees, she said, have four “primary” options: delay further action and discuss the matter further with the president and her attorney; fire the president with cause; fire the president without cause; or lift Williamson’s suspension, allowing her to continue to serve as president.

Depending on the board’s actions, Williamson’s attorney, Bev Carroll of Rock Hill, says the president may sue Winthrop and individual board members. Through Carroll, Williamson has denied the trustees’ allegations against her and has said board members appear to “have their own agenda” in suspending and planning to fire her.

The board’s stated reasons for planning to fire the president, Carroll says, do not satisfy the “grounds for termination with cause” listed in Williamson’s contract with Winthrop. Williamson may sue for breach of contract, slander, defamation and other claims, her attorney has said.

One trustee told The Herald on Wednesday that the first-year president “deserves a second chance.”

Jane LaRoche, the elected representative to the board from the Winthrop Alumni Association, says she’ll try at Thursday’s meeting to persuade fellow board members to keep Williamson on campus. LaRoche was the only trustee to express support for Williamson on June 13 when the board voted 12-1 to suspend and give the president notice of her termination.

LaRoche says she can’t discuss specifics of the board’s discussions about Williamson’s job performance or alleged actions because those talks involve legal matters and happened in executive session. Other trustees contacted by The Herald also declined to comment because of existing legal issues.

At the board’s June 13 meeting, trustees spent nearly six hours behind closed doors before voting in public. Williamson spoke with trustees at that meeting for about one hour in executive session and later sat beside trustees during the vote to suspend her and move toward firing her.

Thursday’s meeting is expected to also include an executive session. The meeting will begin with a public comment hearing. University officials said on Wednesday that one person had signed up to speak.

After hearing public comment, trustees say they plan to spend about two hours behind closed doors discussing Williamson’s employment before reconvening in public session. Under state law, any vote must take place in the public portion of the meeting.

LaRoche says she’s loyal to the Winthrop board and the university, and she stands behind Williamson as president.

“She’s too good to throw away,” LaRoche said, adding that as a new president, Williamson arrived at Winthrop with “wonderful” and “great” ideas.

Hired in February 2013, Williamson took office as Winthrop’s 10th president on July 1, 2013. Since then, “she’s been learning,” LaRoche said.

The president “deserves a second chance,” she said. And, she says she’s heard “mostly positive” comments about Williamson from fellow Winthrop alumni.

Still, Bigham said on June 13 that “trustees are aware of public concerns and questions about certain matters at Winthrop.”

Bigham wrote that Williamson misled trustees in three areas: the hiring of Williamson’s husband, Larry, by the president’s office; communication with students about fee increases; and a salary review process.

Williamson is also accused in the letter of acting in an “unprofessional” way toward her staff and trustees by engaging in behavior that Bigham described as “explosive, berating, demeaning, hostile, condescending (and) rude.” Trustees warned Williamson about her behavior, Bigham wrote, but the president “persisted in conducting (herself) in this manner to the detriment of others and the university.”

Carroll responded to that allegation by saying Williamson “has been told that her direct manner was not suitable to her now Southern setting.”

Williamson is “a woman who is direct in her approach and is not concerned with stroking personalities,” which upsets some trustees, Carroll wrote.

In voting to suspend and consider firing Williamson just 17 days shy of her one-year anniversary on campus, Carroll claims that the board “has quickly abandoned its role to provide guidance to Dr. Williamson to deal with some difficult issues.”

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