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Winthrop board rethinks presidential search process

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/06/22/16/902-VqHXV.Em.6.jpeg|244
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    Jamie Comstock Williamson
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/26/13/11/526-rhAIJ.Em.6.jpeg|209
    Dan O'Mara - domara@heraldonline.com
    The Winthrop University Board of Trustees voting unanimously Thursday to fire President Jamie Comstock Williamson on June 26, 2014.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/03/09/14/309-70ZNs.Em.6.jpeg|469
    Melissa C. Toth -
    File photo from Feb. 15, 2013 when Winthrop Board of Trustees Chairman Dalton Floyd Jr. and Vice Chairwoman Kathy Bigham applauded as Jayne Marie Comstock accepted the job as Winthrop’s next president via Skype.

As they prepare for their second presidential search in two years, several Winthrop University trustees say the opinions of school employees will hold more significance in the Board of Trustees' decision this time around.

Winthrop trustees say they've analyzed the search process that ended with Jamie Comstock Williamson as the university's 10th president. They acknowledge that some faculty members identified – before the president was hired – issues about Williamson that later became board concerns and led to her firing.

In the upcoming presidential search, Winthrop faculty and staff members’ opinions about the finalists should "percolate to the top" as trustees deliberate, board Vice Chair Karl Folkens told The Herald last week.

Folkens’ comments and similar ones from other trustees came as the university released records related to the board’s vetting of Williamson in 2012 and early 2013. The Herald obtained the documents after filing a Freedom of Information Act request in early July.

Winthrop provided documents produced by Greenwood/Asher and Associates, the executive search firm the school hired in 2012 to aid the presidential search. The university also released notes from interviews with Williamson’s references. In total, Winthrop spent $127,800 on the search, including some for the candidates’ travel expenses and the consultant’s fees.

The documents show that most of Williamson’s references were positive. Board members spoke with references listed by Williamson and some who were not. They described Williamson as hard-working and passionate but with little tolerance for the status quo.

The board also considered results of an online survey from February 2013 that invited students, employees, alumni and community members to leave comments and answer questions about Williamson. The same survey was done for three other finalists for the position.

About a quarter of the survey comments about Williamson raised concerns about her leadership style or her ability to work well with others on campus, according to the records obtained by The Herald. The anonymous comments included concerns about whether Williamson was trustworthy, quick-tempered and impatient.

"A number of people were extremely accurate in their perception," Folkens said last week, referring to the survey.

In a termination letter sent to Williamson nearly two months ago, the board accused Williamson of lying to trustees and treating some Winthrop employees in a "demeaning" and "rude" way. The former president and her attorney have denied the trustees’ claims.

Williamson has threatened to sue the trustees for defamation and slander. Last week, her attorney, Bev Carroll of Rock Hill, declined to comment on the 2013 survey and Winthrop’s search process.

Faculty opinion split on Williamson

Folkens says some of the concerns raised about Williamson by Winthrop faculty and staff members seem to correlate with some issues trustees cited in the June termination letter.

In the February 2013 survey, some respondents said they didn’t feel they could trust her and that she provided misleading information about her involvement in a lawsuit at a previous school. One person wrote that her behavior during her on-campus visit "calls into question her temperament."

But, the majority of comments from the survey were positive and included enthusiastic remarks about her experience in higher education, her ability to improve Winthrop’s student experience and her adherence to high academic standards. Many comments described Williamson as passionate, intelligent, charismatic and outgoing.

Some survey respondents said Williamson seemed to be "straight-forward," "direct" and "candid" and that those traits would serve Winthrop. Others expressed concern about her personality type and whether she would treat others on campus with respect.

Most of the 139 survey respondents –– more than half of which described themselves as faculty or staff –– gave Williamson the highest rating possible on skills such as leadership and vision, administrative experience, commitment to student success, ability to cultivate donors for the university, and ability to manage Winthrop’s budget.

Winthrop records show that 10 community members, four students, one presidential search committee member and 26 administrators or department leaders also took the survey.

Some survey respondents said Williamson was their top pick of the four finalists brought to campus last year. She was the last finalist to visit. The next week, trustees unanimously selected Williamson to replace retiring President Anthony DiGiorgio.

Last week, Folkens and some others who played a role in choosing Williamson said they felt she was the top candidate to be Winthrop’s president.

"She was an ideal candidate ... We all found her extremely engaging," Folkens said.

It was clear in interviews and from her application that "she has a passion and heart for (higher education)," said Kathy Bigham, the current Board of Trustees chair and who led Winthrop’s 2013 presidential search and selection committee.

Fellow Winthrop trustee Glenn McCall said he agrees. Williamson "stood out among the rest," McCall said last week.

"It was a risk because she’d never served as a president," he said, but Williamson had many relevant university experiences that had prepared her to move up in administration. None of the four finalists had ever served as a full-time university president.

Now, McCall says, it’s natural to try to look back and see what trustees may have missed in that vetting process. "We should have probably gotten a little more feedback (from faculty and staff)," he said.

During the candidate vetting period, McCall believes some Winthrop employees were calling their peers at schools where Williamson once worked, he said. "They were getting some valuable feedback that we were not."

At least two survey respondents allude to getting information from someone at one of Williamson’s previous colleges. Most appear to base their comments and opinions solely on Williamson’s remarks during one or both of the town-hall style meetings she participated in on Feb. 7 and 8.

Every presidential finalist led two on-campus town-hall meetings. The question-and-answer sessions were open to all employees and lasted more than an hour each.

Some trustees attended the town-hall meetings. Each finalist spent three days at Winthrop and had previously had two in-person interviews before the board voted to pick Williamson on Feb. 15.

McCall: faculty comments deserve 'more stock'

The 2013 February survey "was part of our serious consideration of all the information we had," Bigham said.

Williamson’s survey "certainly did not stand out as overwhelmingly negative," Bigham said. She added that the feedback for other presidential finalists was also mixed.

All four presidential finalists scored nearly the same on the numeric rating part of the survey, she said.

Concerns arose in the survey about all finalists, Folkens said. For Williamson’s competition, the negative feedback generally centered on lack of experience –– not the candidates’ temperament or potential management style issues, he said.

Trustees also felt that the other finalists weren’t as engaging as Williamson during campus visits, he said.

The board anticipated that the survey would bring back negative and positive reactions to every finalist, said Janet Smalley, Winthrop trustee and 2013 search committee member.

During the next presidential search, McCall says he’ll "put a little more stock in what (faculty and staff members) could bring to the table" related to vetting presidential finalists.

He pointed out that a pattern of worrying behavior or any other possible negative would ideally become apparent during reference calls on a job candidate. In Williamson’s case, the overwhelming majority of previous employers or colleagues who were interviewed gave positive references, McCall said.

The records released by Winthrop last week show that board members and a search firm consultant performed nearly a dozen interviews with people who had worked with Williamson or had employed her at other colleges. The references complimented Williamson in many ways, including for her work ethic, decision-making skills, vision, personality and understanding of how to effectively manage most areas of a university.

Some references noted that Williamson could be "too impatient" or that she is "too intense –– should slow down a little." At least one person noted that she had "limited experience working with (university) boards."

One reference –– who was employed at Butler University at the time –– said Williamson’s detractors may comment that "she moves too fast" but that they were likely just "nay-sayers who are resistant to change."

Another Butler employee said Williamson "makes it uncomfortable for those highly-invested in the status quo." He added that some people perceive her passion as "emotional" but he viewed it "as very much a strength."

Most of Williamson’s references gave positive reviews of her previous job performances. One said she is "full of enthusiasm" and is the "kind of person who wherever she goes gets people motivated and excited."

That person, from Butler, described her leadership style as "very interactive" and "a visionary who understands the academic landscape."

Trustees: President issues were unpredictable

Folkens was assigned to perform "deep referencing" on Williamson in 2013, he said last week. He also helped lead the board’s investigation in June into whether Winthrop had "cause" to fire the president.

As a candidate, Williamson was an "extremely capable" leader with an impressive understanding of the higher education field, Folkens said. "And I stand by that."

The reasons for Williamson’s termination, he said, were not foreseen or hinted at during the vetting process. Smalley agreed, saying "hindsight is twenty-twenty, but even in off-list referencing, the issues surfacing in the (survey) comments did not reveal themselves."

Williamson’s reference calls, Folkens said, seemed to solicit honest, favorable impressions from past employers and colleagues. "I never felt like they were hedging anything in what they told us."

But, he said, "I should have been more attune to" the Winthrop campus survey that raised questions about Williamson’s potential issues on campus.

Some of those faculty and staff concerns last year revolved around Williamson’s involvement in a lawsuit at Butler, where she worked as provost and twice served as interim president. She was part of a lawsuit that made claims of libel and defamation against an anonymous blogger who criticized Williamson and other university administrators.

Butler dropped the lawsuit after realizing the blogger was a student. Some disputed topics on the blog involved the employment of the student’s family at the university.

The Butler lawsuit worried some people on campus, Calloway said, but those concerns do not appear to have actualized during Williamson’s short time at Winthrop. And, he said, the issues at play in the lawsuit did not foreshadow the issues later cited by Winthrop trustees in firing Williamson.

Winthrop trustees said last year and repeated last week they did not believe the Butler lawsuit was an indicator of trouble for Williamson.

Winthrop chemistry professor Cliff Calloway said he agrees. He was the faculty’s representative to the board last year and worked on the presidential search and selection committee.

Board to rethink search structure

Winthrop’s 10-member search and selection committee had representatives from many groups such as alumni, students, faculty, community members and school fundraising officials. The committee’s makeup ensured every campus voice was heard, Calloway said.

During the next search, Calloway said, the board could improve the process by having more people on the search committee. Folkens says he’s considered whether the full Board of Trustees should play a direct role in the vetting of many applicants before finalists are chosen.

Last year, the full board met with four finalists after the Winthrop search and selection committee narrowed the pool gradually from more than 100 applicants.

The board could also consider a longer search process to spend more time with individual candidates and give the board more time to solicit and consider feedback, Calloway said.

"It needs to be a take-your-time process," he said, adding that it’s difficult not to rush because there’s a possibility of losing a good candidate if they’ve applied to other schools.

And, he said, the process of naming college presidents is "seasonal," meaning the timing needs to take into account the academic calendar.

With the options of keeping Winthrop’s current Acting President Debra Boyd in office longer or naming an interim president, the board may have more time during its next search, Calloway said. Last year, trustees were seeking to replace DiGiorgio, who was retiring.

Boyd is in her 30th year at Winthrop and serves as provost and vice president for academic affairs. She was appointed acting president when Williamson was fired.

Asking Boyd to remain as acting president until a new president is in office is an option, Folkens said. Boyd is "doing just an exceptional job ... (she’s) the right person at the right time and she stepped up at a time of crisis," he said.

The upcoming search for a permanent president will require a "special" process and "tailored" approach to Winthrop, Folkens said. "Especially after a long-term president ... and a presidency that got cut short."

Bigham, the board chairwoman, says the trustees’ survey methods could be improved. During the last search, she said, Winthrop officials "did what was recommended to us" to gather opinions.

Now, she said, "we’re hoping that if we get more involvement and input from others (on campus) initially, it will help us select finalists that represent what all of our constituencies would like to see in the next president."

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