Fired Winthrop president speaks out for the first time
Editor’s note: Jamie Comstock Williamson was fired in June 2014 after just 11 months as president of Winthrop University. Since then, she has declined to answer questions about her dismissal, including the reasons Winthrop board members gave for terminating her. In late May, The Herald met with Williamson and her husband, Larry, over two days in Florida. This is the first of a five-part series from those interviews.
Jamie Comstock Williamson says she was surprised, devastated, and in disbelief when she was suspended and then fired just five days shy of her one-year anniversary as Winthrop University president.
The events surrounding her departure last June, she said, “unfolded quickly and without warning.” Just three months prior, the campus held a week-long celebration for Williamson’s presidential inauguration, and school officials called her “visionary and inspirational.”
But, after those March inauguration festivities, tensions rose between Williamson, a first-time president, and Winthrop’s governing board. The relationship frayed after the revelation of large pay raises for senior administrators; a summer tuition increase of 40 percent; and news that Larry Williamson – the president’s husband – was being paid to work for Winthrop.
The problems boiled over on June 13, 2014. School trustees met for nearly six hours behind closed doors and then voted 12-1 to suspend Williamson. Two weeks later, she was fired.
A two-page notice of termination letter outlined trustees’ complaints: Winthrop’s board accused Williamson of lying, violating state ethics law, attempting to destroy public records, and acting hostile and demeaning toward campus employees.
In late May, a reporter and editor from The Herald met with Williamson and her husband, Larry, at their home near Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Over two days, the Williamsons discussed her firing, responded to criticisms from board trustees, and talked about the last year and their plans for the future.
During the interviews, Jamie Williamson made several allegations, including that:
- Winthrop’s board knew of and signed-off on Larry Williamson’s employment. Trustees didn’t raise concerns about the president’s ethics or nepotism until the month she was fired.
- The university’s board chairwoman advised Williamson to formalize her husband’s role on campus.
- Trustees used employee statements last year about alleged workplace bullying to “discredit” the former president. Williamson says her behaviors weren’t abusive or hostile.
- The board was upset last year over large pay raises for senior employees, but the decision had been left to the president’s office. Still, Williamson had plans to inform trustees of the changes.
- Over recent years, Winthrop trustees haven’t paid enough attention to the school’s finances, declining enrollment, and other governance issues.
In a statement issued last week to The Herald in response to Williamson’s allegations, Winthrop points to the South Carolina Ethics Commission’s recent findings of probable cause on a charge of nepotism against Williamson. A panel of three state ethics commissioners will decide whether Williamson violated state law in the hiring of her husband.
Winthrop officials say they cannot comment on issues surrounding Larry Williamson’s employment because the ethics commission has scheduled a hearing on the case for Nov. 18.
On other issues, Williamson “has chosen to hurl accusations at trustees who were deeply saddened when faced with clear and convincing facts which compelled them to act,” Winthrop officials contend in the statement.
When Winthrop trustees fired Williamson last June, Board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham read aloud a statement during the meeting about their decision. “Candor and trust between the president and the Board are crucial for this university, and any university, to thrive. And once candor and trust are irretrievably broken, decisions must be made to chart a different course,” Bigham read at the time.
Last week, Winthrop officials said Bigham’s statement “resonates all the more strongly” in light of Williamson’s “continued use of rash and unfounded allegations.” The university added: Williamson “appears to blame others for her own poor decisions.”
Ethics, contract complaints unsettled
The day of her suspension, Williamson had been on the job for 347 days as president of South Carolina’s fifth-largest university and one of the state’s oldest and most diverse public colleges.
In firing her on June 26, 2014, Winthrop trustees said an “extensive and detailed factual inquiry” had uncovered “clear and convincing evidence” of wrongdoing by the former president.
Williamson’s time as a college president – something she considered her “true calling” after decades of work in higher education – was over.
“This was one of the most devastating things Larry and I had ever been through,” Williamson, 58, said. “Nothing seemed real … (It) was hard to know, what’s the next step?”
For Winthrop, the next step was naming university Provost Debra Boyd as acting president for one year while trustees looked for a new president. This month, Winthrop’s 11th President Dan Mahony took office.
But, many issues are unsettled between Winthrop and Williamson, the only president fired in Winthrop’s history.
As well as the ethics commission inquiry about nepotism, Williamson and the university face a potentially lengthy and expensive legal battle after mediation failed late last year.
$32,000+ amount Winthrop officials say they’ve spent in legal fight
Now, the former president is speaking publicly for the first time, denying all the claims against her and raising new concerns.
For a few months last year, Rock Hill attorney Bev Carroll spoke on the Williamsons’ behalf. Until now, Williamson said she followed her attorneys’ advice to not make public comments about Winthrop.
“All along I was uncomfortable making no comment because, although like everyone, I’ve made some mistakes, none of them rose to the level of ‘for cause’ termination,” she said.
The university and Williamson are in a legal dispute over the former president’s claims of breach of her employment contract, slander, and defamation. Shortly after being fired, Williamson threatened to sue the school and individual trustees.
The legal issues with the university are ongoing, Williamson says, and she declined to talk about specifics related to mediation. No lawsuit has been filed and arbitration is still an option.
But, on other issues, the former president says, “I don’t feel like I have anything to hide.”
In a statement last week, Winthrop officials said: “While the Winthrop community has no choice but to endure Dr. Williamson’s unfounded allegations, we choose to look ahead to a promising future thanks to the foundation Dr. Debra Boyd built in the last year as acting president and the leadership and vision of our new president, Dr. Dan Mahony.”
‘Writing on the wall’
Williamson says she tried to give Winthrop trustees answers about the allegations they made in firing her. During last year’s long executive session on June 13, the president, her husband, several news reporters, and many senior university employees sat in a waiting room across the hall from the Gold Room in the DiGiorgio Campus Center where trustees hold board meetings.
Nearly five hours passed before Jamie Williamson was invited in.
“The longer it took, the more serious I knew it was,” she said. Inside the board room, she said, trustees asked vague questions that were difficult to answer, but Williamson says she responded honestly.
Her meeting with the trustees, which lasted an hour, was closed to the public. Williamson says she consulted with Carroll, her Rock Hill attorney, before the meeting but decided to talk with trustees on her own that day.
Just one trustee – Jane LaRoche, a Winthrop alumna – voted against suspending Williamson. Two weeks later, the vote to fire Williamson was unanimous.
Before she was fired, she tried to resign twice, Williamson said, but Winthrop’s board refused to negotiate her resignation. She says: “They wanted to humiliate me.”
Carroll, who is no longer representing Williamson, made similar complaints against the board last June and accused trustees of mishandling their grievances with Williamson. Carroll said she stepped down as Williamson’s attorney because her firm also represents the state insurance reserve fund, which covers Winthrop as a state agency.
Winthrop officials said last week Williamson “never offered an unconditional resignation – a choice she could have made at any time.” Each side’s attorneys communicated last June about a resignation.
Williamson could have chosen to appear before the board on June 26, 2014, for the “reasonable opportunity to be heard,” officials say. That, according to Winthrop’s statement this week, was her “clearest opportunity to offer her resignation.”
Williamson and Carroll have said Winthrop breached the terms of her employment contract by not giving her a 30-day written notice and a chance to correct alleged issues. Winthrop officials have argued a 30-day notice wasn’t required under basis they found for firing her.
When Williamson was suspended, Winthrop officials confiscated building keys, took away her access to her university email and deactivated her password to the Winthrop-owned computer in the President’s House, she said.
Jamie and Larry Williamson contacted their pastor, friends and family for support.
“I kept re-living the meeting,” trying to figure out what went wrong, she said. “And then we began to see the writing on the wall ... And we just left.”
They left Rock Hill in mid-June 2014, stopping in Atlanta to see Jamie Williamson’s family and then moving on to Florida to live in their vacation home.
They moved out of the president’s house in early August. Also that month, Williamson was granted supervised access to her office in Tillman Hall.
Now with a new president in Tillman Hall, Winthrop officials are taking issue with Williamson’s decision to air her complaints “very publicly,” instead of through legal or court options.
Williamson “hopes to steal the spotlight from the positive gains Winthrop has made since her termination to focus on supposed claims, grievances, and gripes she could have aired before her termination,” officials alleged in the university’s statement to The Herald.
Trustee action ‘career-ending’
But, Williamson says she’s telling her “Winthrop story” in response to what she calls “selective disclosures” by university officials since last summer.
“One of the hardest things I’ve done in my life is to repeatedly read Winthrop’s one-sided version of the truth,” she said.
The Williamsons initially contacted The Herald in March about telling their story. Scheduling issues for both The Herald and the Williamsons pushed the interviews to late May. Interviews lasted nearly 16 hours over two days.
The couple says they’ve tried to be optimistic over the past year.
“This happened to her, but it happened to me too,” Larry Williamson said. “We’re both very optimistic people ... (But), this was a career-ending situation.”
We turned our focus on what we have instead of what we lost.
Jamie Comstock Williamson
Jamie Williamson has joined an informal network of former university presidents who were fired or forced to resign from their jobs. The support she received, she said, was particularly helpful because “nobody knows what it feels like – it’s unlike any other job.”
Many former presidents in the group were catapulted into hard financial times after losing their jobs, Williamson said. Most universities provide a home for sitting presidents – a perk that ends when the employment ends.
For Jamie Williamson, a termination “with cause” from Winthrop meant her $300,000 salary and benefits ended.
The Williamsons say they were fortunate to have a vacation home to live in and Larry Williamson’s retirement income to help support them.
The physical move out of the Winthrop President’s House, they said, helped them move forward. Williamson says she stopped reading news about Winthrop and The Herald’s later coverage in 2014 that included more details about the trustees’ allegations against her.
Instead, she read books on her porch – just a short walk from the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico and nearly 550 miles away from Winthrop.
Larry Williamson worked for six months as manager of a credit union near their Florida home. Jamie Williamson restarted yoga and joined a Bible study group at their church, Point Washington United Methodist. Earlier this year, she began leading a Bible study.
Jamie Williamson serves on the church pre-school’s board as treasurer. She also recently completed family court mediator training, seeking certification from the Florida Supreme Court. Her certification is pending but Williamson hopes to start mediating cases in the fall.
“We turned our focus on what we have instead of what we lost,” Jamie Williamson said, mentioning her marriage, close friends and their family. “If you want to rebuild your life, you have to be optimistic.”
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068
On Twitter: @ADouglasHerald