Pioneering men start new traditions at William Peace

University’s first coed semester full of lessons for 104, their female peers 

jstancill@newsobserver.comDecember 9, 2012 

  • William Peace University ’12 total enrollment: 791 ’12 enrollment in day program: 621

— Chick flick night has been replaced with scary movie night. The posters on campus are a little less girly. Strolling the leafy grounds are brawny basketball players with names like Nate, Antonio and Sam.

William Peace University is no longer your grandma’s women’s college.

It’s been a few months since 104 brave men arrived at Peace College to transform the tradition-bound campus into the rebranded, coed William Peace.

So far, the “Peace boys,” as some of the girls refer to them, like being pioneers.

“I feel like I made history,” said Dennis McKiver, 20, a sophomore from Elizabethtown, who transferred from Shaw University on the other end of downtown Raleigh.

Phillip Martin, 20, a freshman from Henderson, said at first he detected moments of female students being “kind of judgmental on us.” But overall, he’s delighted.

“It’s been really fun,” he said. “It’s actually peaceful.”

But at times, the transition felt like war.

Since the decision to go coed was announced last year, vocal alumnae have waged efforts to reverse the change and oust WPU’s president, Debra Townsley.

There were online petitions, Facebook rabble-rousing, campus protests and a push by influential alumnae who engaged legal and public relations advisers.

The alums have been quiet lately, though a website called “Protect Peace College” is still maintained. In August, the site charged that university officials had discarded a Peace relic known as “the gong,” an old railroad wheel that was used to call girls to dinner in the old days.

But Townsley said other alumnae have written to say they’re excited that their sons can follow the Peace tradition.

“Now they have a chance for their child to go to their alma mater,” she said.

And there are signs that the change has gone over well with students.

The number of students who returned from last year rose 10 percent, and those who requested on-campus housing increased 12 percent.

“Students, for the most part, are happy with the decision they made,” Townsley said, though she conceded that a handful of Peace students had transferred to Meredith or Salem, two of North Carolina’s remaining women’s colleges.

Increased enrollment

WPU enrollment rose to 791 this fall, an increase of 9 percent, Townsley said.

The number includes residential students and those who attend night and weekend programs that cater to older learners and provide online instruction.

Men make up nearly one-third of the first-year class – a higher share than expected.

Townsley said her goal is to grow the university’s enrollment to 1,000.

As men populate all four class years at WPU, the makeup of the student body will continue to change. The first-year class this fall is more racially diverse than in 2011, according to university statistics.

Students were recruited from 15 states for this fall, compared with three states last year. That effort will expand to 26 states for next year’s incoming class.

So far, many students seem unfazed by the male revolution at William Peace.“The dynamic is a little bit different, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Student Government Association President Jeanna Buck, a senior from Washington, N.C. “I think with any changes you’re going to have both good and bad. ... It’s been interesting. I think they do add a good dynamic to campus.”

Buck laughs, remembering a “craft night” activity when a young man sat down beside her and proceeded to decoupage a coaster.

“I was like, ‘This is precious, this is absolutely precious,’ ” she recalled.

Men’s sports taking off

Male students live in a couple of coed dorms, where genders are separated by floor or wing. A renovation to the athletic center included new male locker rooms, as the university ushered in its first men’s sports – golf, cross country and basketball. Next year, men’s soccer and baseball will be added. The athletic department budget jumped 22 percent over last year to start the new teams and hire male coaches.

The advantages that attracted women to Peace for more than 150 years are also a drawing card for men –small classes and individual attention from professors. New students also may have been lured by the university’s unusual action to lower tuition by 7.73 percent this year; next year, tuition will remain flat.

“I wanted to go to a small college,” said Jalen Henry, 17, a freshman from Winston-Salem. “I didn’t want to be a number at a big school. I like the teacher-student ratio.”

On a recent day as exams approached, Henry settled in at the library to write his English composition paper on the NFL’s ban on helmet-to-helmet collisions. He said male students have a tight bond.

“I feel like it’s more special because there are not many of us,” he said.

Some Peace alumnae maintain that the university has lost something as it gained the new students.

“It really takes a lot away from the traditions that we held dear at Peace College,” said Miriam Dorsey, a 1964 graduate. “We just think that it’s very disappointing that we have to say goodbye to another all-women’s college, when we think that they have something special and something wonderful to offer.”

She questioned the expense for men’s sports, even as the college cut faculty and shifted academic programs in recent years.

“The alumnae are still watching,” Dorsey said.

‘Just call it Peace’

Nadine Parangi, a 19-year-old sophomore from Raleigh, said welcoming the guys wasn’t that difficult for her. It seemed much like high school.

Others felt a bit of shock initially, she said: “After the first week, girls just kind of got over it. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

The professors are adjusting, too. When citing examples in class, though, some still default to pronouns “she” and “her.”

Buck, the student government president, is glad the days of turmoil seem to be in the past. Last year, the campus was in limbo, and some of the alumnae demonstrations had a nasty tone, she said.

She hasn’t quite adapted to the name William Peace, though. “I just call it Peace,” she said. “It seems to work for everybody.”

Buck likes to think that the sisterhood connection with proud alumnae can remain, even with the name change and the new variety of Peace students – the ones with beards, baseball caps and gym shorts.

“We want to empower women to go out there, say what they think, reach their goals,” she said. “I think we still have that same mission, but we’re just doing it for all students now.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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