June 13, 2014

Winthrop University board fires president

The Winthrop University Board of Trustees has suspended president Jamie Comstock Williamson’s duties and given her a 30-day notice of termination.

The Winthrop University Board of Trustees has suspended president Jamie Comstock Williamson’s duties and given her a 30-day notice of termination.

The action came after a nearly six-hour closed door meeting.

The Board of Trustees called Friday’s special meeting earlier this week to discuss Williamson’s employment contract.

Friday's meeting came one day after Williamson and her husband, Larry, returned his $27,000 Winthrop salary to the university. The Herald first reported Wednesday that Larry Williamson was paid by Winthrop to work part time in the president's office during the last school year.

In announcing that the couple has returned the $27,000, president Williamson stressed that they had not violated South Carolina’s Ethics Act, which stipulates that public employees cannot hire their family members for positions they manage or supervise.

Her office has said Winthrop’s trustees were aware that Larry Williamson was a paid temporary employee, performing governmental affairs work from Sept. 1 to May 31. And, Winthrop officials have said Jamie Williamson did not direct the hiring of her husband.

Jamie and Larry Williamson arrived at Winthrop less than one year ago after school board members unanimously chose her from a field of four presidential finalists. She took office July 1, replacing longtime retired Winthrop president Anthony DiGiorgio.

The board last May signed a five-year contract with Williamson, with a starting salary of $169,970.

As president, Williamson quickly began holding meetings with students, faculty and staff to start a “visioning process” that she said would help put “Winthrop on the rise.” The “rise” theme became a tagline during her presidency, as she sought to gradually increase the university's enrollment by 1,000 students over the next four years.

Winthrop celebrated her leadership and the school's history nearly three months ago during a special weeklong inauguration for the new president.

At the start of her presidency, Williamson started a staff assembly group that many people on campus applauded for giving campus employees a stronger voice in decision-making. Over the past 11 months, she also tackled Winthrop's “football question” and said she and the board have been working toward deciding whether adding a football team is right for the school.

Recently, Williamson encountered some hurdles on campus after she gave pay raises to some senior-level employees without informing the board of the raises. At least five top Winthrop officials received increases of 10 percent or more. In some cases, those employees were promoted.

The president's staff has said pay raises are routine for universities every year. The raises were deserving because of promotions, according to the president’s staff, which added some employees had been paid less than their counterparts at comparable colleges. They also said the president was not required to inform the board of the raises or seek its approval.

While trustees this month drafted a new policy that will give them more oversight over compensation and raises, Williamson met with faculty and staff members to understand the impact that the news of the pay raises had on campus. She later sent an email to employees, saying all Winthrop employees will soon be part of a salary study that could result in pay raises for some faculty and staff members.

Trustees have not yet voted on proposed policy changes regarding salary oversight.

Nearly two weeks later, as summer classes began at Winthrop, students and professors raised concerns about a 40 percent summer tuition hike that they say surprised them. The hike pushed the cost of one three-hour class to $1,260 –– up from $897 last year. Still, the university's summer tuition is among the lowest in the state.

Though the new tuition rate was published on the school's website before summer class sign-ups began, that didn't result in the information “trickling down as would have been most desired,” Williamson said last month.

Again, Williamson met with concerned employees about the way the summer tuition increase was communicated to the campus. She pledged to improve communications and to announce summer tuition rates along with spring and fall rates later this year.

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