Peace College's future

Peace College goes coed with an eye on expansion. But why was the decision made so secretly?

July 24, 2011 

By Friday morning, Peace College had become William Peace University on Wikipedia. That's how quickly one impact of a trustees' surprise announcement Thursday afternoon had begun to transform the private women's college in downtown Raleigh. (The Peace official website was still using the established name.)

With some alumnae, however, the transition wasn't so smooth once the official word got out that trustees had unanimously voted to make Peace coeducational in 2012 and to change its name and in so doing, signal an intent to expand and offer graduate degrees, which is one thing university status means.

This is no small change for the traditionally small college (fewer than 800 students) in downtown Raleigh. Peace has weathered many of the challenges faced by private schools, which depend more on tuition to pay the bills than do public institutions, but like many comparable schools it is constantly trying to strengthen finances and enrollment.

A place for the times

William Peace, a Raleigh businessman and Presbyterian leader, gave $10,000 and eight acres of land for the establishment of a women's institute in 1857. The Civil War, however, disrupted the plans and the official opening didn't come until 1872.

The education in those early years was conservative and fit the times. More recently, as higher education evolved, Peace changed (as did other schools) to expand its offerings and to recognize the long overdue opening of professional opportunities for women.

Laura Carpenter Bingham, who graduated from Peace in 1977, was the first alumna president, named to the post in 1997. She was aggressive on fund-raising was open to change and forged strong bonds with the Raleigh business community and beyond. The profile of the president's office seemed to grow during her tenure.

Her reaction to the change to a co-educational campus must have given pause to some in the college community. Bingham, who retired last year, raised the question in the minds of many alumnae when the announcement came Thursday. "It's doubtful," she said, "that the namesake would welcome the sudden change of mission or that thousands of supporters will accept it, not having been part of the visioning for it."

The whirlwind

That was fairly mild compared to the reaction of current students and alumnae who were strongly opposed both to the change and to the veil of secrecy that surrounded it. The change may have been unanimous among trustees, but early reaction indicated it was far from that in the larger university community.

Current President Deborah Townsley, who came to Peace from a small, private coed school in Massachusetts, and others said it was not a strictly financial decision in difficult times for private schools. But trustees are going to have to explain the whys and wherefores of their decision in coming days.

What prompted this? Who was behind it? Has there been study to support it as a strategy? Isn't this a particularly risky choice to "spring" on alumnae and supporters? Did trustees believe this was absolutely necessary for the college's survival? And why was it done secretly?

The college, once trustees decided to look at this prospect, could have engaged in the kind of open discussions and process other schools making big changes have used. Or did trustees anticipate that it would be easier to make the change and then deal with the negative reaction they must have been sure would ensue? Actually, to ask that question is to answer it.

As a private institution, Peace of course does not have the obligation to share all of its discussions and debates on this matter with the public, as a taxpayer-funded school would. But the challenge now is to build alumnae support, first and foremost, to make the case to Peace's most loyal and dedicated graduates, along with financial supporters. Trustees owe that to them and to this community, so long loyal to a college that has contributed much to Raleigh's cultural life.

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