Provost leaves mixed legacy at Butler
Jill McCarter | News Editor | email@example.com
In Jamie Comstock’s executive corner office, the windows are open, letting in the familiarity of Butler University’s campus—even in the month of December. After three and a half years, Jamie has grown accustomed to the sounds of lawnmowers, the heavy door of Jordan Hall slamming behind students as they exit classes and the conversations of those who pass by her window.
But that office in Jordan Hall may go empty next semester as the search begins to fill her position as provost and vice president for academic affairs.
On Nov. 18 at 2:11 p.m., as students were hustling home for Thanksgiving break, a campus-wide message from President Jim Danko announced that Jamie had asked to step down from her position.
The decision to step down is a culmination of several factors, Jamie says.
Her husband, Larry Williamson, a faculty member in the political science department, will retire at the end of this academic year.
“This leaves Larry and I free to think about how we want to live out this next phase of our life only driving one career instead of two,” Jamie says.
The change in presidents of the university also contributed to her decision to leave the post.
When Danko started this semester, Jamie says she provided him with background and context about some of the ways the university operates.
“He and I get along really well,” Jamie says. “He’s a very good listener and has dedicated these first few weeks and his time to listening.”
Danko says that though they have only worked together for a short time, he knows that Jamie is leaving the position in a good condition for its next occupant.
“I appreciate Provost Comstock’s dedication and hard work on behalf of Butler,” Danko says. “It is always a challenge to be the introducer of change within an organization, but Provost Comstock has done well in making important changes at Butler.”
Jamie says it felt like an appropriate time to step away from her position and allow Danko to have more freedom in choosing his own provost.
“The relationship between a president and provost is a marriage, and it’s better if it’s not an arranged marriage,” Jamie says. “It’s better as a marriage of choice.”
In recent weeks, Jamie has been reviewing her time at the university. Her tenure, marked with both controversy and success, has taught her a lot about herself and other people and has brought her happiness, she says.
“Joy comes every single day,” she says. “Every day when I get up and get ready and come to work, I know for sure that I’m contributing to the greater good. I know for sure that I’m doing good for the Butler students and for the Butler faculty and staff that serve the students.”
Landing the Role
When she sent in an application to become Butler’s provost back in 2007, Jamie wasn’t on the hunt for a new job.
She was enjoying her position as vice president of academic affairs at Millikin University, a private university with 2,400 undergraduates in Decatur, Ill., but applied for the Butler position at “the eleventh hour.”
Butler’s former provost, Bill Berry, had just accepted the same position at the University of Dallas, leaving a spot up for grabs to work as President Bobby Fong’s right-hand man or woman.
Fong had garnered a national reputation for his leadership capabilities, Jamie says, which attracted her.
A search committee—headed by professor of finance Bill Templeton and Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson—narrowed the candidates vying for the provost position down from 50 to three, a trio of women that included Jamie.
“The provost has to be someone the president can work closely with, so it’s important to give him as much flexibility with the decision as possible,” Templeton told The Collegian in 2008.
After a successful first-round interview at a hotel near the Indianapolis International Airport, Jamie was invited to an on-campus interview.
“It’s just as much the campus interviewing you as it is you getting a feel for if the campus is the right fit for you,” she says. “I loved it here.”
A little more than 12 months after the search began, university officials announced that Jamie would start her duties as provost on July 1, 2008.
Jamie’s first mark on Butler’s academic legacy came right as students started their classes in the fall of 2008.
As the school year started, the university’s strategic plan, a roadmap for Butler, started to flourish. “Dare to Make a Difference” was to serve as a guide for Butler from 2009-14.
The Board of Trustees assessed the plan in February of 2008, and it had been adopted by the steering committee board, who presented it in an open forum to the Butler community in October.
Jamie attended the forum, where the committee met opposition and frustration over some of the plan’s shortcomings—a lack of specific ideas and budgetary information.
Jamie and the committee acknowledged the issues and went back to the drawing board to finalize the plan before the fall 2009 semester.
Then, as she chaired Butler’s Strategic Plan Implementation Team of trustees, Jamie led work groups of Butler faculty and staff to put the plan’s priorities into practice.
Part of the plan called for more student outreach into the community, including changes to the Indianapolis Community Requirements.
Seeing it as an important aspect to student learning, Jamie oversaw the implementation of the requirement into the curriculum.
“It’s a really strong statement to show how Butler blends its values,” she says.
Throughout her time in office, Butler expanded joint ventures with Indianapolis Public Schools .
Though a partnership with Shortridge Magnet School for Law and Public Policy was created shortly before she arrived, Jamie says she ensured that it continued to “flourish and solidify.”
The connection Butler has made within the community over recent years is an accomplishment, Jamie says.
“These are things the university should be proud of,” she says. “A lot has happened.”
Now, despite his departure to lead Ursinus College as its 13th president, Fong describes Jamie’s impact in Butler’s academic division as productive.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with her during my time at Butler,” Fong says now. “She was one of the architects of the ‘Dare to Make a Difference’ strategic plan, and she has built a very strong deans team.”
Creating a College
One of Jamie’s biggest accomplishments, she says is the addition of the university’s sixth college—the College of Communication.
In December 2009, faculty members from the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism, the communication studies department and the media arts department created a committee to present the proposal for the creation of the new college.
The seven-member committee pitched the proposal at the Dec. 8, 2009, Faculty Senate meeting.
Under the plan, the three departments would be housed in one college to “better serve the students,” according to the proposal presentation.
Jamie says that the university had been toying with the idea of combining the disciplines since the Fairbanks Center for Communication and Technology opened in 2001. Until the new proposal, attempts to converge the three departments had failed, “due to campus politics and financial reasons,” Jamie says.
After a lengthy discussion in assembly, faculty senators debated whether or not to hold the deciding vote until the next week, but a majority of senators voted to keep the process going. Jamie says the speed of the creation is a misconception.
“Sure, it happened fast if you think [the creation] started in 2009,” Jamie says. “But it didn’t happen fast if you realize that this plan started with the building of Fairbanks and actually fell apart.”
After more than three months of meetings and discussion, senators put the proposal up for a vote.
In the March 23, 2010, Faculty Senate meeting, senators raised concerns about what would happen to the existing colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Jordan College of Fine Arts—if the three departments were to move out—taking with them the funding and the staff.
David Waite was a faculty member in the communication studies department, which was, at that point, a part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and says he had heard the arguments against the creation.
“Creating a new college has a lot of built-in worries and concerns with it,” Waite, a professor of communication, now says of the vote.
The discussion the senators were divided about centered around funding of the new college, which had a nearly $3 million price tag.
“When the focus was on what was good for students, though, the conversation changed drastically,” Jamie says now.
Senators passed the proposal 14-11-1.
“When you’re doing something that includes a major structural change, 14-11 is a really good vote,” Waite says.
When the proposal reached the Board of Trustees for approval, it passed unanimously.
“It’s hard not to see it as a showcase and lasting piece of progress for Butler,” Jamie says.
She says she was in a unique position to provide leadership for the committee since she earned her doctorate in communication.
“Because it’s my discipline, it was so easy for me to see how valuable it would be to pull these things together,” Jamie says.
Though Jamie has shared in the successes of the programs she’s overseen, her tenure has also been spotted with some controversy.
After a controversial resignation of the chair for the Jordan College of Fine Arts school of music, Jamie, along with other members of the administration, was on the receiving end of scrutiny from people who felt the chair’s departure was unfair and buried from publicity to avoid negative feedback.
On Dec. 25, 2008, an email sent to Jamie and the former dean of JCFA from an account belonging to “Soodo Nym” sparked a controversy for university officials.
The email, which Fong deemed as threatening, set off a series of events that led to an eventual libel lawsuit that put Butler University in the media spotlight.
In the email, the sender writes, “I haven’t forgotten the abuses of power and poor leadership you showed last semester. I know you wanted me (and all students) to forget over the holiday, but I assure you that I have not.”
University officials later learned through a court-issued subpoena that the sender was then-sophomore class president Jess Zimmerman, an operator behind TrueBU, a blog that offered commentary on some controversial Butler issues, including the resignation of the chair, Zimmerman’s stepmother, Andrea Gullickson.
In the lawsuit Butler University v. John Doe, the plaintiff claimed that libelous statements about Jamie and other faculty members were harmful and threatening. Butler faced scrutiny from organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, who claimed the university was imposing on Zimmerman’s First Amendment rights.
One statement the university claimed to be libelous was that Jamie is “unwilling to work with students unless she can see how the relationship will directly benefit her.”
Jamie refuted the claim.
“My overarching goal is to raise this to a level of conversation so people realize we can manage our free speech in a way that doesn’t hurt other people,” Jamie said in an interview with The Collegian on Oct. 28, 2009.
The case was eventually settled out of court, with a strict confidentiality clause prohibiting all parties involved from speaking about the matter.
Jamie says that she’s enjoyed her time as provost and has loved being a part of a community “that is so supportive.”
During the Final Four last year in Houston, Jamie says she volunteered to act as a “stay-at-home mom” while others attended the games.
“It was such great fun to stay on campus and be a part of the celebrations here,” she says.
Jamie will still be part of that campus life. Next semester, she’ll be teaching students in the College of Communication.
She says she’s not exactly sure what her career aspirations are.
“I’m not going to say that I’m done,” Jamie says. “After nine years in an administrative role, I do think I need to step back and see what my future holds and what kind of things I want to be doing.”