Peace University, alumnae grapple with this fall's changes

jstancill@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2012 

— Men will move into the dorms at William Peace University this fall, but that's not the only change coming to the downtown Raleigh campus that has educated women for than 150 years.

The women's college is not only becoming coed, it's blurring the lines between high school, community college and university education.

Even as male students are blending into college classrooms, the former Peace College could become home to single-sex academies for Wake County high school students. Across town, Wake Technical Community College students can remain on their campus while earning a four-year degree from Peace professors through a new partnership. Closer to home, Peace has taken steps to improve its relationship with surrounding neighborhoods.

Leaders also hope to add graduate degrees several years down the road.

But as the university announces new initiatives nearly monthly, a battle still rages in the background as Peace alumnae seek answers and accountability from Peace leaders who signed off on the changes. Both sides have hired private attorneys and public relations firms in the skirmish.

Already, some changes are visible on the campus. Men can be spotted on prospective student tours, and renovation will start later this month on athletic facilities, where male locker rooms will be added. Part of an academic building will be vacated to make way for the high school academies, if the concept is approved by state education officials and the Wake County school board.

The new partnerships are key to thriving in a rapidly changing time for education, Peace President Debra Townsley said. "There's a lot of talk about that nationally," she said. "You just can't operate in a vacuum anymore."

'Answers from Peace'

The latest changes have provided fodder for a fresh round of questions about what's going on at Peace.

On Tuesday, Miriam Dorsey of Raleigh, a well-known Peace alumna, warned the Wake County school board about forging a relationship with Peace and cited concerns about the university's financial viability.

"I come here today to urge this board to exercise due diligence," she said. "Be very careful before you choose this partner. Get answers from Peace before spending the taxpayers' money."

Townsley maintains that Peace's future is solid.

In an unusual and bold move, the university announced that it would lower tuition by nearly 8 percent for the fall. That may have sparked an increase in interest.

Applications are running ahead of last year, as are inquiries by prospective students, said Justin Roy, vice president for communications and marketing. As of Thursday, WPU had received 1,138 applications, compared with 998 by the same date last year, Roy said. With five months to go before fall semester, the number is likely to surpass last year's 1,219 applications.

Townsley said about 30 percent of applicants are men, which is higher than she anticipated. A new major in simulation and video game design is also expected to draw male students.

"We think we have great programs in a great location and amazing outcomes," she said. "When you put that combination together, I think it will be a smooth transition."

Tiff over a letter

So far, though, the coed switch has been met with a bitter and loud outcry from alumnae, who organized on Facebook and led protests on the campus.

They say they have been shut out of the process. The change was announced last July, about six months after college leaders said going coed was not on the table.

"We the alumnae and donors deserve transparency and openness, not to mention involvement, in these very significant changes in our 150-year-old institution," Dorsey said. "Instead of being trusted and respected, we feel betrayed by this small group who apparently decided that only they know what is best for the college community."

Dorsey is a member of a group of alumnae who formed to preserve Peace's legacy. They hired John McMillan, a Raleigh attorney, along with public relations consultant Joyce Fitzpatrick and political consultant Gary Pearce.

The women decided to seek legal help after another group of alumnae had a run-in with attorneys hired by the university.

Last fall, a group of mostly young alumnae composed a four-page letter raising questions about the changes, which they described as "cataclysmic" and "shrouded in secrecy." Signed by some 45 people, the letter cited concerns about the dismissal and buyout of faculty, elimination of academic majors, dropped agreements with the Presbyterian church, and the name change, among other issues. The letter was addressed to Peace supporters.

A law firm hired by Peace later sent cease-and-desist letters to the signers, charging that they had made "statements which are not only false but individually and collectively damage the reputation of the University and the President." The letter, signed by Catharine B. Arrowood of the Parker Poe law firm, instructed the signers to stop distributing the document and retract their claims.

The cease-and-desist letter prompted criticism of Peace by a national free expression watchdog group. Peter Bonilla of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote on the FIRE website that criticism by the alumnae is free speech protected by the First Amendment.

"Such disrespect by the college for the basic exercise of the group's free speech rights, in fact, smacks precisely of one of the charges leveled against the college by the group: that it is unaccountable to the public and that "(c)oncerned alumni of Peace College are treated as adversaries when they pose legitimate questions to the new guard," Bonilla wrote.

For-profit rumor

Arrowood could not be reached for comment, but Townsley said the university has no problem with outspoken critics as long as they don't spread falsehoods.

Alumnae, for example, wrongly said that Peace's student numbers were down, Townsley said. She also dismissed rumors spread by alumnae that Peace would become a for-profit institution.

"There are private schools that look to sell, and often it's desperation, ... the way that they survive is to sell to a for-profit. We are nowhere near that. Depending on the day of the market, we have $35 (million) to $40 million in the bank," she said. "The board has no intention of looking at a for-profit. We haven't even had that discussion."

Townsley said she had welcomed the discussion about Peace's future. She pointed out that she held webinars and open houses for alumnae in the fall. Some dined at her home to discuss the changes.

One of those was Dorsey, who said she learned to challenge authority during her days at Peace in the early 1960s.

Dorsey described herself as "a wallflower" while at Broughton High School. She blossomed when she arrived at Peace, where she became editor of the school newspaper.

"Peace College gave me my voice. It taught me critical thinking," she said, adding that many of the current trustees have no real tie to Peace. "For these people, this small group of less than 25 people, to come along and just change all that and wipe it off the slate and then not tell us what's going on, it's very, very discouraging. I can't tell you how hurtful that is."

Students, meanwhile, are watching the changes unfold. While many cheered the decrease in tuition, others say they don't like some of the other proposals.

Laura Murray, a junior from Wake Forest, said her major, graphic design, will be dropped after she graduates. As for the single-sex academies, she said, "I'm paying $32,000 a year to get away from high school students."

Murray said the male students are likely to be a distraction in the classroom. But she's also upset about the way the changes were implemented - hastily, and without input from students.

"If they had asked for people's opinions instead of bulldozing over them, they might have had a better outcome," she said.

One thing Murray is glad about: The administration has promised that, through 2013, graduates will receive diplomas that say "Peace College."

"I'm never going to graduate from William Peace University," Murray said. "Never."

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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