A College Copes with Change

In 2010, when tiny Peace College in downtown Raleigh hired a new president, a cascade of changes began, all designed to protect the future of the institution.

But the transformation also started a torrent of criticism that has yet to fade away. Just this month, a group of three students unhappy with the school’s use of resources and its alleged lack of transparency has organized a student petition demanding, among other reforms, the president’s immediate resignation.

“Change is really hard,” said Debra M. Townsley, the president of William Peace University, in a Pope Center interview. Working with the board of trustees, she has ushered in the new era for Peace. But that new era has brought alumnae criticism, the loss of donor support, and negative press.

The changes were big. To start, the college’s name changed in 2011 to William Peace University (more strongly emphasizing the name of William Peace, who founded the institution in 1857). And, just two years after beginning to allow men into the night program, Peace announced that it would enroll men on a full-time basis.

The school also cut faculty. It instituted an early retirement incentive program for full-time faculty and eliminated some programs, according to Townsley. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that 13 professors, about one-fourth of the faculty at the time, took a buyout. After the school’s major in music performance was eliminated, three dismissed professors sued the college. The case was reportedly settled out of court.

Maigan Kennedy, a 25-year-old senior and spokesperson for the student protest group—called We Want Peace—said that one problem driving the group’s petition is faculty and staff turnover. Kennedy, who works part-time as an admissions ambassador at Peace, said that one of the university’s selling points is the relationship between faculty and student, and that is lost when the university hires too many adjuncts and other part-time staff members who come and go. Kennedy told the Pope Center that three staff members she was close to had left the college in a three-month span.

Today, there are 31 full-time faculty members, with five more soon to be hired, according to Townsley. She said she does not know how many adjunct professors are at Peace, as the number changes from semester to semester.

Until the latest protest from We Want Peace, the school experienced a period of relative quiet. In 2011, however, a group of angry alumnae banded together as Save Peace College (on Facebook, “Preserving Peace College’s Legacy”). The group circulated a letter criticizing Townsley for a host of actions—ranging from staff reductions to the name change to loosening ties with the Presbyterian Church—and for shrouding all of them in secrecy.

Adding weight to their protest, Peace’s previous three presidents co-wrote an op-ed in the News & Observer condemning the college’s direction. Presidents S. David Frazier, Garrett Briggs, and Laura C. Bingham argued that all the changes were, in short order, destroying a reputation built over generations. They, too, expressed bafflement at what they called “secrecy and undue urgency” on the part of Townsley’s administration.

“I’m not sure what you can say to satisfy people with their opinions,” Townsley told the Pope Center. “What I can say from my perspective is that I’m hired by the board to do a job and I’m doing the job that the board has asked me to do.”

Townsley’s administration has brought a number of less controversial changes as well. The school cut its tuition by 7.8 percent in the fall of 2012, the first semester men were allowed in the day programs, and enrollment has grown from about 600 to almost 800. Townsley’s administration set a goal of increasing enrollment to 1,000 students by 2016. Peace has boosted its online and evening programs, and after originally reducing majors, will increase the number to 18 from 14 next fall. These feats are similar in nature to the turnaround Townsley was credited for during her tenure as head of Nichols College, a business school in suburban Massachusetts.

Perhaps the most audacious and controversial move, however, came last year when Peace purchased a shopping center adjacent to the campus.

Reports in September were that Peace was spending $21 million—two-thirds of its endowment—on the Shops at Seaboard Station. Townsley told the Pope Center that the number was a distortion. Peace spent just $11 million of its endowment on the center and some surrounding land, with the remaining $10 million coming from a non-recourse loan, according to Townsley. (The non-recourse loan meant that the retail center was collateral, and in the case of losses, William Peace itself would not be liable.)

Alumnae and donors criticized the investment as much for its suddenness and secrecy as for the startling dollar figure, however.

In an almost bizarre development, the News & Observer reported last July that Peace had refused to provide the names of its trustees, who had approved of the investment unanimously. This was despite an IRS requirement that colleges file these names publicly with the IRS each year. And the newspaper quoted Michael Hobbs, the former communications director at Peace College, as saying the college listed its trustees prominently when he was there. Hobbs left in 2010, the same year Townsley arrived.

When the Pope Center recently asked about the college’s decision not to disclose its 2012-2013 trustees, Townsley said, “Nobody asked us the names.” However, the Pope Center obtained emails between the News & Observer and a public relations firm working on behalf of Peace at the time showing that the newspaper directly requested them. The representative had denied the request, citing school policy. In a follow-up interview with the Pope Center, Townsley said that it was so long ago that she could not remember being asked for the list.

The school began posting the list of its trustees—all of whom were on the board during the purchase talks—on its website on March 22, according to Justin G. Roy, the vice president for enrollment and marketing.

Board member Rick Martinez, a former radio host and columnist and current member of Governor Pat McCrory’s press office, said that the board decided to post the list on the website because some people had recently complained that they were not there. He said that this decision was uncontroversial.

Yet there is still a level of distrust for the administration in the Peace community. A student who originally intended to interview for this article changed his mind. A professor sent an email turning down an interview with the Pope Center after calling to explain she had reviewed her contract to find out what she was allowed to say. Kennedy, the We Want Peace spokesperson, told the Pope Center she believes the administration monitors school emails.

Townsley laughed off that charge, saying that the administration does not have the time to do that.

Kennedy, a student in the theater program, first attended Peace in 2007, and left in 2009. She reenrolled at the college after Townsley’s arrival in 2012, and found it a different place than the one for which she originally signed up. Kennedy pointed out that students pay upwards of $30,000 in tuition and should know what they are getting. “The university is a business and the students are paying customers,” Kennedy said.

We Want Peace intends to gather “no fewer than 300 signatures” for its petition opposing “radical cuts” and “excessive secrecy,” among other things. Kennedy said the group was planning to send a copy of the petition to each of the board members last Friday.

The story of Peace College, now William Peace University, is a complex one and the story is far from over. The school acted aggressively to deal with a declining enrollment, but in doing so, it antagonized the devoted community of “Peace girls,” alumnae who, it seems, are dedicated to forever keeping Peace the special place it was when they left it. Furthermore, the changes instituted by the board and Townsley’s administration seem to have aroused opposition from students, too, although the proposed petition has not yet been sent.

On the other hand, perhaps Townsley’s critics are just romantics who fear the fading of Peace’s tradition and identity. Townsley and the board are remaking the 150-year-old college for the 21st century, and Townsley says she hopes it will last another 150 years.