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Just under a year after Jamie Comstock Williamson became president of Winthrop University, the board suspended her on Friday and announced its intent to fire her.
The board did not say why it took its action, except to say that it was "for cause." Under the terms of Williamson's contract, she must be given an opportunity to respond to that cause before she can be fired, and the board's action Friday set up that opportunity for Williamson.
The action against Williamson came days after The Rock Hill Herald revealed that the university had hired Williamson's husband, Larry Williamson, as a part-time employee to work on government and external relations for nine months. A day after that news report, the Williamsons announced that they were returning the $27,000 that he had been paid, although they also defended his hiring. The repayment did not quiet criticism of the arrangement.
Jamie Williamson has had some other controversies during her 11 months in office -- with some criticism of raises for administrators and a steeper than expected increase in summer term tuition. But comments posted on the alumni association's Facebook page and on other social media suggest that she was also winning fans at the university, and there was no sign -- until the news about her husband's part-time work -- that her job was in danger.
Larry Williamson is a Navy veteran who has also held several jobs in higher education that suggest a background appropriate to work in government relations. He has been vice president for institutional advancement at Maryville University, and has been director of government relations and executive assistant to the president at the University of West Florida.
A key problem for the Williamsons, however, may be that South Carolina law bars employees of public entities such as Winthrop from hiring or promoting anyone whom they would supervise. Winthrop officials, when the Herald reported on the situation, said that the hiring was done by Kimberly Faust, the president's chief of staff, and not by the president. A Winthrop spokesman told the newspaper, however, that Faust did discuss the issue with Jamie Comstock Williamson, and that the Executive Committee of the board had been informed.
The day after Larry Williamson's employment was revealed, Jamie Comstock Williamson issued a new statement defending the hiring as legal, but announcing that the couple had returned the money. "As president, I believe I must set a standard even greater than compliance with the law and hold myself to higher values grounded in honesty and integrity. I will not allow even the appearance of wavering from those values. That is why Larry and I have returned the compensation paid to Larry by the university," she said.
On Saturday, the Herald reported that Gary Simrill, a state representative and Winthrop alumnus, said that he had been passing on reports to the board of concerns about the university, including about the hiring of Larry Williamson. Simrill praised the board for "taking swift action" and being "hands-on." A state senator from the area, Wes Hayes, told the Herald that “whenever you have a spouse that’s a paid employee, particularly in the same office, that’s going to raise concerns.”
The head of the Faculty Conference at Winthrop did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did President Williamson, although it is unclear if she still has access to the presidential email at Winthrop. She has not commented to local reporters or made a public statement.
The issue of employing and paying presidential spouses has been discussed for years. For much of the history of American higher education, of course, presidential spouses were presumed to be women who would -- without pay -- contribute countless hours to entertaining, fund raising and a range of activities that advanced their husbands' careers and institutions. As ideas of gender equity advanced to presidential offices, there is no longer the presumption that presidents are men, or that spouses of men or women will work for the institution without pay. But paying spouses still remains a practice only at a minority of institutions.
According to the American Council on Education's report "The American College President 2012," 36 percent of presidential spouses work outside the institution, 51 percent of spouses work on campus activities without pay, and 14 percent are formally employed or compensated by the institution for the role as a host or fund raiser. (The 14 percent figure is up from 10 percent five years earlier.)
Susan Resneck Pierce, consultant to boards and presidents, a former president, Inside Higher Ed columnist and author of On Being Presidential, said via email: "In my experience, when an institution hires a presidential spouse for a staff position, that decision is made at the board level rather than by the president and/or by someone who reports to the president. This arrangement is often done at the time of the presidential appointment, often with the board creating a special contract for the spouse."
Teresa Oden is wife of the former president of Kenyon and Carleton Colleges and the author of Spousework: Partners Supporting Academic Leaders. She said via email that when a board acts as quickly as Winthrop's board did, she wonders if there were issues at play beyond the hiring of the president's husband. But she also said she wasn't surprised by board discomfort over that issue.
Oden stressed that the appearance issue may be as important as, or more important than, whether the hiring was legal. "The particulars of the spouse's employment in this case are sure to raise some eyebrows even though, strictly speaking, there may be nothing wrong with the arrangement, particularly because it was part-time and temporary. But no board wants to see controversy of any kind hitting the news."
In the case of Winthrop, Jamie Comstock Williamson appears to be facing a backlash for the hiring of her husband. But she made no secret of his importance to her career, or of the complicated issues couples face when both have jobs in college administration. Just before her inaugural in April, she sent a message to the campus that she had changed her name legally to add her husband's last name.
She wrote: "As I prepared my inauguration speech, I reflected on the path that led me to this pinnacle point in my career and kept returning to the realization that I would not be president of Winthrop without the dedication, support and counsel of my husband, Larry Williamson. During the early years of our marriage, when Larry worked in senior-level university jobs, we moved for his career. Then, later, at Larry’s urging, we focused on my career arc. Thanks in no small part to Larry’s encouragement and support, my movement through the academic leadership ranks progressed quickly and culminated in my dream job – president of Winthrop University."