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Butler’s Comstock takes the reins at Winthrop

She will be the Rock Hill school’s 10th president and the 2nd woman in that post

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

Winthrop’s 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 for or against the other two finalists, Jeff Braden from North Carolina State University and Ulysses Hammond from Connecticut College. A fourth finalist, Elizabeth Dale from Drexel University, dropped out Thursday night.

Winthrop started the search for its 10th president after Anthony DiGiorgio said in March 2012 that he would retire this June after serving 24 years as the university’s leader.

The four finalists recently visited the Rock Hill campus for three days and met twice in Charlotte for in-person interviews with the school’s 10-member search group.

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

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

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.

Board vice chairwoman Kathy 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 is currently director of the Executive Leadership Group for the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit was filed as a “John Doe” suit, against an anonymous blogger who targeted Comstock and other Butler administrators. The university sued the blogger but eventually dropped the suit when the writer revealed he was a Butler student.

Winthrop trustees said they felt comfortable choosing Comstock because they know facts about her background and time at Butler that Winthrop faculty members perhaps don’t, said Glenn McCall, a board member.

“She didn’t file the lawsuit, she was representing the university – the university filed it,” he said after the board meeting. “For some reason, she took the brunt of the faculty and these guys’ criticism. But it’s fact.”

Student newspaper reports

Another professor spoke at Friday’s board meeting, saying he worried about student newspaper reporters on campus under a Comstock administration.

Guy Reel, a journalism professor and the faculty adviser to Winthrop’s weekly student publication, The Johnsonian, made an emotional plea to board members Friday, saying, “I would ask the board to send a powerful message to the students today … that it will stand up for them and stand by them and all of their efforts … to write the news fairly, faithfully and fearlessly.”

After listening to two other faculty members express concern about Comstock, the board met behind closed doors for about 45 minutes.

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.

They voted by a show of hands.

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, after 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.

Shared governance

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 by speakers at Friday’s board meeting also were topics of discussion between Comstock and faculty members 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.

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 like to establish a staff leadership assembly.

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

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

In response to concerns about Winthrop’s student newspaper freedoms being suppressed, Comstock said The Johnsonian is an “absolutely wonderful laboratory” for students.

In college, Comstock wrote for her campus newspaper and remembers interviewing Rosalynn Carter when her husband, 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.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Female presidents

At Winthrop, Comstock will be one of 12 women leading nonprofit colleges and universities in South Carolina, according to the state Commission on Higher Education’s website. Women represent 5 percent of all university presidents in the state.

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.

At the American Council on Education, 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.

Stephen Smith: “She has exhibited so little remorse or regret about the events at Butler. Shouldn’t we worry that she might draw to Winthrop similar controversy in the years to come?”

Kathy Bigham: “We believe strongly that Dr. Comstock will lead us positively into the future.”

Douglas: 803-329-4068
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