RALEIGH — After more than 150 years of educating women, Peace College will change its name and admit men, a move that stunned students and alumnae.
In a surprise announcement Thursday, Peace College trustees said the school will become fully co-ed, opening its doors to male students in the fall of 2012. The college will be renamed William Peace University, after its founder.
"This is about making Peace bigger and better," Elizabeth Cherry, trustee vice chairwoman, said. "Adding more students means enhancing the student experience for everyone and it will certainly enhance our athletic, academic and extracurricular programs."
College officials maintained the decision was not made for financial reasons, but acknowledged the shift will broaden Peace's market appeal. Many private colleges that depend on tuition for survival have suffered enrollment declines during the recession.
The outrage from alumnae and students was immediate. They say the change will destroy the traditions of the downtown Raleigh college that has educated women since before the Civil War.
A Facebook group known as "Peace Girls" lit up with posts such as, "It will never be the Peace I knew and loved." Another said: "You want my donation every year and this is what you do with it. Change the entire history of the college and never even bother to ask an opinion."
Students said the announcement came as a blow. Many learned of the decision via an e-mail from the college, only after it notified the media and posted an announcement on Facebook and Twitter.
The lack of communication was disturbing, Peace junior Lucy Stone said.
"We're supposed to be a sisterhood, and you don't keep stuff from your sisters - and that's what happening," she said.
Others were resigned to the shift.
"It was bound to happen, you know. It'll be something different to have guys here, but at least it's not for another year," sophomore Ruby Hernandez said.
Hope Williams, president of the N.C. North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, joined Peace officials for the announcement. She said she supported the decision.
"These are challenging times for all of higher education, and Peace has once again chosen the path of moving forward to embrace the future with fresh ideas and new ways to meet the needs of students," Williams said in a news release about the shift.
The trustee vote was unanimous and enacted part of the school's new strategic vision, said Peace President Deborah Townsley, who has been on the job for a year. The trustees formed a planning committee to discuss the idea about eight months ago, she said.
A year of change
The decision capped a tumultuous year for Peace.
Longtime faculty members and administrators were let go as the college reorganized its academic programs. Townsley expanded the night school, which was already open to male students. New degree programs were launched, including online-only options.
The changes created tension with alumnae and unsettled some students, who talked of transferring.
Stone, who is at home in Virginia for the summer, thought about leaving last year but didn't. Now she wishes she had the option. Most schools have stopped accepting transfer applications this late in the summer.
"Every reason that she chose Peace college no longer exists," her mother, Pat Stone, said. "This president and Board of Trustees has completely destroyed what existed for 150 years and has created a whole new animal - and it's not a particularly nice one."
There will still be opportunities for Peace women to learn in a single-gender environment. Single-sex classes will be offered in some subjects in which evidence shows that male and female students benefit, Cherry said.
Some of the logistical aspects of the transition are still in the planning stages, such as reconfiguring residence halls, adding men's athletic teams and recruiting male students, Townsley said.
Active Peace alumnae said they were reassured last fall, in January and then again at the end of the spring semester, that co-education was "off the table," from school officials, including Townsley and the trustees. Even so, a petition to "Save Peace" had been circulating on the Web.
"We were told yet again that 'No, [Peace] would continue to empower women," alum Erica Galliupe said. "I'm incredibly disappointed and deeply ashamed to be a part of the Peace sisterhood, which I believe to be dead and buried."
Former President Laura Carpenter Bingham, who retired last year, issued a statement Thursday saying it was difficult to comprehend the undoing of a 150-year-old mission in 11 months with virtually no consultation with students, alumnae and other college supporters.
"Change and innovation can be good - and should always be diligently considered - but this much change this fast is very rare for institutions which serve a public trust," Bingham's statement said. "The enduring passions for Peace of alumnae, students, professors and donors are being abandoned, and a campus community known for quality teaching and quality people uprooted. It's doubtful that the namesake would welcome this sudden change of mission or that thousands of supporters will accept it, not having been part of the visioning for it."
Bingham went on to say that she hopes "the Peace of the future will earn a quality reputation as Peace College did successfully for generations."
Meredith won't follow
After the announcement, Meredith College moved quickly to reassure students, faculty and alumnae that it would not follow Peace's decision.
"As a Meredith graduate, I know firsthand the value of a women's college education, and Meredith College is committed to remaining a women's college," said President Jo Allen.
Some women's colleges have struggled to attract students in recent years. Some have gone co-ed in response. "I think it is the right decision for them," said Susan Lennon, spokeswoman for the Women's College Coalition, an association that represents a dwindling number of the single-sex schools. "These are very complicated times."
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