Point of view

Three former Peace presidents speak out on its changes


August 14, 2011 

The last three presidents of Peace College witnessed and shaped a place of deep fundamental values that has offered young women quality academics and forged an inspiring sisterhood. We are gratified that our alumnae weave the fabric of our democratic society, near and far.

The stewards of Peace College have navigated good and challenging times, keeping faith with the founders' covenant while also achieving relevance for girls and women, spanning three centuries. We did not fear change - it was our role to welcome it. We took seriously our responsibility to listen and learn and lead within and toward change before decisions were ratified. So the surprise announcement that Peace College will abandon its mission by opening its doors to male students came as a shock to us and to all but a few insiders.

The practical philosopher, Warren Buffett, has said that "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to lose it." Peace has had many turns of 20 years in its venerable history, but this recent "five minutes" seems so ill at ease with the college's reputation and principles.

This past year, the culture and quality of Peace have been precipitously dismantled. Strategic plans appear to have been predetermined, dominated by a few new voices and hastily enacted. Selected facts and figures have been crunched by those seeking to make Peace a case study of their acumen. Actions have been taken as trustees met off-campus to thwart the voices of confused students and to distance themselves from the place they serve.

Discerning alumnae, who have embraced many changes at Peace, have been neglected and left behind, locked out of campus buildings when there to protest peacefully; hundreds are stewing on social network sites. Donors will likely see endowed funds given for certain purposes redirected without consultation. Members of governing and advisory boards have resigned in protest. Perhaps a minority of trustees have controlled the actions of the whole, either from peer pressure, incomplete information or from lack of inquiry fundamental to the liberal arts.

For generations, quality graduates have attracted new students, and the dedication of our professors and professionals have inspired productive citizens. For 40 years, faithful benefactors and legacy families have made the college's "endowment-per-student" strong. In just 15 years as a baccalaureate college, fulltime-equivalent enrollment increased 41 percent, and Peace earned the "national liberal arts" Carnegie classification. Student NSSE ratings (National Survey of Student Engagement) place Peace in the top 10 percent in learning and academic engagement. Ninety percent of Peace College graduates land jobs or places in graduate programs of their choice.

Much open, deliberate and careful study, and subsequently many resources and private gifts, were invested in becoming a liberal arts and sciences college for women - proudly one of 46 with a distinctive mission rather just another amid thousands - but its life has been cut short. So, we ask:

Why abruptly abandon what has been labored over and built with considerable consensus and success in recent decades? Why seek to mimic indistinguishable coeducational competitors in the marketplace? Why radically tear apart instead of build upon strengths, especially at a time of consequential reaccreditation? Why with a $40 million endowment and a campus conservatively worth $50 million spin a web of doom?

Why force into early retirement and terminate iconic and aspiring professors - over half of the fulltime faculty - who are remembered long after trustees and presidents come and go? Why fire and discourage professionals who enrich the campus experience?

Why break ties with the Presbyterian Church, dismiss the chaplaincy as irrelevant and eliminate the shared experiences of chapel services, a tradition since 1872? Why strip these students of values and traditions that bond them back to the institution where their character, giving and involvement matter most?

And, why do all this in a shroud of secrecy and undue urgency? What has happened to transparency and inclusiveness and to uplifting the fundamental values of the institution in times of change?

Authentic colleges outlast the lives of most people, largely because fiduciary stewards of the college, graduates and friends with a passion for the mission are stakeholders beyond the moment. Good faith and stewardship, principled leadership and strong outcomes hold venerable institutions in good stead over time.

Like most small private colleges, Peace's finances and enrollments fluctuate, educational trends come and fade, and current voices can carry the day. Peace College, throughout its history, however, has managed to "find its way," so that today's families value, alumnae cherish, donors honor and employers laud it. The mission may be difficult, but it is worth the effort; graduates are evidence of the relevance.

What a privilege it was to uphold the enduring values of the founders, the beneficence of the donors, the challenges of our day and the enduring mission to serve women with the "substantial education" William Peace provided for and Peace College alumnae represent.

S. David Frazier is president emeritus of Peace College, serving 1965-1988. This article was co-authored by former Peace presidents Garrett Briggs (1988-1998) and Laura C. Bingham (1998-2010).

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