RALEIGH — At the edge of the historic Peace College campus near downtown, the signs at the stately brick entrances are covered with white banners proclaiming a new identity: William Peace University.
The women's college won't admit full-time male students until fall 2012, but the transition is under way.
College officials will soon redesign catalogs and brochures to incorporate the new name and recruit men to the campus. They'll consider what male sports to offer and where to put a men's locker room. And this fall, the faculty will start a discussion about courses that could be tailored for male or female audiences, a plan that experts say is likely to run into legal trouble.
At the same time, the furor over the change shows no sign of dissipating among many students and alumnae.
More than 1,000 have organized on Facebook, where they push petitions, plan protests and take orders for T-shirts that read "Preserve the Peace College Legacy." They have posted a copy of William Peace's handwritten will from the 1800s; the founder donated $10,000 and eight acres for the education of women.
And they have taken aim at the new signs and the new name, which they derisively refer to as "WPU." One woman posted a photograph of her 93-year-old mother, a Peace graduate, beating the new banner with a cane.
The college's trustees announced the changes last month, the same day the board voted on the name change and coed shift. A strategic planning committee had considered the college's options for several months.
'Tears all around'
College officials insist the change is necessary to ensure that Peace survives. Todd Robinson, chairman of the trustee board, said the decision was not made casually or enthusiastically.
"There were tears all around the table," he said.
It's not a matter of board members wanting the school to be coeducational, Robinson said. "It's a question of what's economically viable going forward."
Peace, like all private colleges, is heavily dependent on tuition from students. In a letter to alumnae, Robinson and other board members pointed out that after Peace made the change from a junior college to a four-year degree-granting institution in 1996, full-time enrollment rose from 448 in 1996 to 681 in 2003.
But, Robinson's letter said, since 2003, with the exception of two years, the number of full-time day students has declined. of two years. And though the college is not in immediate financial danger, Robinson said, it never reached its target of 850 as set out in a 2006 strategic plan.
President Debra Townsley, who took the helm at Peace a year ago, has taken the heat for many of the decisions. She has recently conducted webinars to explain what is behind the changes.
"You look at the competitive landscape," Townsley said in an interview Tuesday.
She listed the statistics: National data show that 2 percent of women will consider attending a women's college. A half dozen women's colleges are within a two- or three-hour drive from Raleigh, including the larger Meredith College across town.
Townsley said Peace has the capacity to reach 1,000 or 1,200 students if it can draw from a broader pool of male and female students.
It's not a new predicament. In 1950, there were more than 200 women's colleges in the United States. Today, about 50 are in operation. The rest closed their doors, merged with other colleges or went coed.
"If you're a women's college, this discussion goes on," Townsley said. "This is a continual discussion."
Alumnae prefer to consider the example of Mills College, a women's school in California, where officials decided in 1990 to admit men. That set off a strike, student protests and a boycott of classes. Weeks later the board reversed its decision and Mills remains a women's college today.
On Facebook, alumnae speculate on why trustees conducted closed deliberations and a quick vote. They mourn their alma mater; some have already rushed to the bookstore to buy Peace College rings and other paraphernalia before the traditionallogo disappears.
The new one, with the William Peace University name, was registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on March 9, just weeks after college officials insisted the coed plan was not in the works.
Robinson said the trademark was separate from the decision to go coed. He said several other names were under consideration, but he declined to identify them.
Betsy Boddie, a 1946 graduate from Rocky Mount, is a longtime donor, but she won't give money in the future, she said.
Boddie was an honorary trustee, until the college sent a letter recently informing her that she was no longer needed in that role. Honorary trustees had been welcome to attend trustee meetings and voice their opinions without voting. No more.
"I'm terribly disappointed and very sad and angry about the secrecy," said Boddie, whose daughter and two granddaughters are Peace alumnae. Another granddaughter will consider other options, she said.
Boddie is talking to other alumnae about what can be done.
"We are going to try everything that we possibly can to get the college back," she said. "They did away with what we know as Peace College."
For now, college leaders are batting down rumors. Though the college no longer requires chapel attendance, Robinson said Peace would continue its historic link to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Other traditions will carry on if the students so choose, Townsley said.
When the announcement was made last month, leaders said the college would offer single-sex classes targeted to male and female students in "disciplines where research shows that women and men learn differently.".
That won't pass legal muster, say experts on Title IX, the federal law that guarantees equal opportunity in education.
"There is no question that under Title IX you can't just willy-nilly have some classes be single sex and some classes be coeducational," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center. "They're on a little shaky ground here."
It's unclear what classes would be for students of one sex only. The faculty will consider the issue this fall, said Betty Witcher, psychology professor and moderator of the Faculty Assembly.
But Townsley was noncommittal about the plan Tuesday, saying only, "We're exploring it."
Witcher said the faculty found out about the coeducational move at the same time it was announced publicly. But professors sensed it would happen at some point. "I think all of the faculty realize we needed to do something as a college," she said.
Elsie Totten, a 1949 graduate, credits Peace with giving her the self-confidence to go into business for herself in Durham, where she ran a downtown gift shop for many years. She fondly remembers daily chapel and the fact that the dean required students to wear gloves when they traveled by bus.
"I won't live to see what the outcome will be down the road," she said of William Peace University, "but I can't believe it's good."
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