It has been ten months since Winthrop University’s new president walked into Tillman Hall for the first time as the new head of the Rock Hill school.
The morning of July 1, 2013, we were there as faculty and staff lined the halls cheering as Jamie Comstock Williamson, the newest president in nearly 25 years, walked in the glass-paned door of her new office.
Today, some of those employees — and a few new ones — have even more to cheer about.
SEE BELOW: Audio version of Part 1 of this report, full interview with Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez.
This is the first of a three-part series on steep increases in Winthrop University’s top executives’ pay. Coming Monday, you’ll hear feedback from Winthrop’s Board of Trustees on the increases; Tuesday, our legislators will weigh in on the salary bumps as they work through state appropriations for institutions like Winthrop from the State House in Columbia.
In a series of Freedom of Information requests, WRHI has discovered that 88 university employees have received pay raises since July 1, 2013.
Of those 88 raises, most were the product of the university’s annual review process. Many were small in comparison to the university’s total payroll: three to four percent. Compared to previous years’ salary increases (104 worth $779,000 in 2012-2013 and 83 amounting to $589,000 in 2011-2012), the total amount of employees awarded higher salaries this year, and the total cost of additional salaries paid, is lower.
But among the raises awarded since July 1, 2013 — some in excess of 15 percent — amount to more than $280,000.
For example, Athletics Director Tom Hickman, a 25-year employee, recently received a $26,192 raise that brings his salary to $144,000. University spokesman Jeff Perez defends the 22 percent raise, attributing the salary bump to Hickman joining President Williamson’s senior leadership team. An internal compensation review conducted by the University found that Hickman is the longest-serving athletic director in the Big South Conference. Perez says the salary bump now brings his annual pay to the average among athletic directors in the Conference.
Under Williamson’s leadership, she has brought in new blood to the President’s Office. One of those key movers and shakers is Perez himself — the university’s chief spokesman and lobbyist. He was hired three months ago after handling external relations at the Citadel at $140,000 a year. Perez’ predecessor, Rebecca Masters, made roughly $50,000 less.
“There are not a lot of people…who have been a lobbyist in two other states, who have considerable experience with the media and with government here in South Carolina,” Perez said. He holds a doctorate in American History.
Also among the new hires at Winthrop, Eduarto Prieto and Danny Nicholson. Prieto is Winthrop’s new vice president of Access and Enrollment Management, a position that, at Winthrop, pays $170,000. Prieto’s salary is the second highest at Winthrop behind head Men’s Basketball coach Pat Kelsey. Perez says Prieto’s role is unique — and well worth the expense in helping carry out President Williamson’s vision of adding 1,000 students over the next five years.
“When you’re talking about the person that’s responsible for generating millions of dollars, who is responsible in no small way for the future of the university, you want to hire the best person you can,” Perez said.
Danny Nicholson, also a new hire, oversees Winthrop’s office of Institutional Advancement and earns $150,000 in his new role. In a campus leadership reorganization last fall, former Vice President of Institutional Advancement Kim Keel moved into a new position for the non-profit Winthrop University Foundation. Before Keel left, her salary was $123,600. Nicholson, in the reorganized role, earns $26,400 more. Both salaries, Perez says, mirror the going rate for individuals in their fields.
“The reality is the state has decreased our appropriation by about 50 percent over the last few years,” Perez said. “We need to be generating millions of dollars in order to make up the money we’ve lost… and grow as an institution.”
Perez noted $1.1 million raised since Williamson launched the “Dare to Rise” campaign during her Investiture ceremony.
Lastly — one of the most notable salary increases on Winthrop’s campus this year: Longtime Police Chief Frank Zebedis. Prior to President Williamson’s arrival, Zebedis grossed $82,558 per year. Now, thanks to a $27,442 raise, Zebedis earns $110,000 annually — a 33 percent increase.
“We want to make sure we retain that talent here at Winthrop,” Perez said. “His salary was reviewed and it reflects his great competence and what others in his field make; it reflects the value that we place on him.”
RAISES: HOW FAR IS TOO FAR
Due to the specific nature of Zebedis’ role and title, his position are quick comparisons to public institutions across South Carolina. At the College of Charleston, Public Safety chief Robert Reese makes $84,846 per year. At fellow Coastal Carolina, Police Chief David Roper makes $96,387. Roper oversees 83 employees in the department of Public Safety, while Zebedis oversees a staff of 26.
To expand the comparison just a bit more: Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts manages a staff of 190 and earns an annual salary of $87,755. That’s more than 22 thousand dollars less than Zebedis. York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, who oversees a staff of more than 361, earns $101,369 — 86 hundred dollars less than Zebedis.
Are these raises justified? That’s up for you, the taxpayer to decide. Perez — the university spokesman — says this year’s salary increases were put in place following an intense study of wages at Winthrop. Wages that Perez says were compressed for far too long.
“Higher education institutions — not just Winthrop — are facing a situation where our pay is comparably lower to other states,” Perez said. “That is certainly a challenge for all of us and one that Dr. Comstock (Williamson) wants to address.”
In total, all 88 raises make up more than $576,000. Sources of those funds, Perez said, were annual budget requests and lapse accounts, a fund derived from employees who leave the university mid-budget year, leaving a pot of funds available for disbursement.
In part two of “Higher Pay in Higer Ed,” we’ll have reaction from Winthrop’s Board of Trustees, the governing body of the university. Tuesday, we will hear from our elected officials about changes in state law affecting salary increases.
Full interview with Winthrop’s Jeff Perez:
Audio version of Part 1 in the three-part series: