The former president of North Carolina’s Community College System says he was forced out of the job in July, and he believes he was “collateral damage” from a power struggle between a local college board and the state board.
Jimmie Williamson’s abrupt resignation was announced July 31, and he left the job at the end of September. A former president of South Carolina’s technical college system and leader of two community colleges there, he had been in the North Carolina president’s position a little over a year.
“On the wall of Kinard Hall, at Winthrop University (my alma mater) is an engraving: ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set Ye free,’ ” Williamson wrote in an emailed statement to The News & Observer. “The truth behind my forced resignation from the Presidency of the NC Community College system is about as hard to come by as a dry shirt in a hurricane rain storm.”
Williamson said he had had no formal or informal reprimands before the board asked for his resignation following a closed-session meeting in late July. The president of the community college system serves as an at-will employee with no contract.
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“The conspiracist in me believes that my job became collateral damage after a brutal battle in the Senate for Senate Bill 420 which removes local control from Boards of Trustees and places control with the State Board,” he wrote.
The bill allowed the State Board to replace a local college trustee board with an interim board in “extreme circumstances” of negligence or fiscal mismanagement. It arose from a crisis involving Martin Community College last year when the State Board intervened, withholding funding for the salary of the former president Ann Britt, who eventually stepped down after a negative state audit and allegations of financial mismanagement. The bill passed the Senate but has not cleared the House.
Martin Community College is in Williamston, about 100 miles east of Raleigh. Williamson said the problems there had been brewing for years before he arrived. He said the local trustees and some presidents took him to task for supporting the bill that the State Board endorsed.
Scott Shook, chairman of the State Board, said Friday he could not comment specifically on Williamson’s situation. “All that would be news to me,” he said of Williamson’s theory. “That’s interesting.”
“Obviously he resigned from the community college system,” Shook added. “Personnel issue – that’s all we can say about that. I haven’t had any contact with him, he hasn’t had any contact with us.”
Beyond the Martin Community College issue, Williamson said the system staff became frustrated with his learning curve on North Carolina procedures and politics.
“The board knew it was hiring an outsider – someone who had a proven track record in the private sector as well as higher education when they hired me,” his email said. “What did they expect? That I would be able to learn this massive state in less than one year? Absurd. I was never given planning objectives or evaluation criteria – much less the privilege of being able to correct any perceived missteps along the way.”
Whatever the reason for Williamson’s departure, the system is moving forward and there are signs the State Board is looking to hire someone with more knowledge of North Carolina. For one thing, this time around the board won’t use a search consultant, which is standard in national searches.
On Friday, the board’s transition committee reviewed a presidential profile that seeks someone with “a general understanding of and appreciation for the mission and philosophy of the North Carolina Community College System. The candidate of choice should be a creative, visionary, experienced leader of high energy, exemplary personal integrity and professional ethics and should possess the ability to work with and respect a constituency of diverse needs and interests.”
The job description says a Ph.D. and master’s degrees are preferred, but not required of candidates.
Ann Whitford, co-chair of the transition committee, said the panel wants someone who has a vision for the future of the system’s 58 community colleges. With a population shift from rural to urban areas, the state’s smaller colleges could face big challenges in sustaining enrollment as population declines, she said.
There is no set timetable for a hire, she said, and the committee will cast a wide net for candidates.
“We would expect some different people from all walks of life — politicians, people in academia, corporate people,” she said.
The committee will advertise for the position in national publications and accept applications until Jan. 15. The review of candidates will begin in late January.