Seaboard real-estate deal heightens tensions at William Peace University

jstancill@newsobserver.comJuly 20, 2013 

— Two entrenched factions have battled over the future of William Peace University for three years, but the distrust has hit a new level with a bold investment move by the school’s administration.

The university’s recent decision to invest nearly two-thirds of its $33 million endowment to acquire the Seaboard Station retail center has further enraged some donors and alumnae who see a secretive and power-hungry new administration intent on changing everything about the former women’s college and risking its financial future.

The university’s president, Debra Townsley, and the trustees say they are simply making difficult yet necessary decisions that will ensure that William Peace thrives for decades to come.

As the two sides argue, there’s increasing evidence that the feud is straining relationships within the university.

“The trust level is very, very low at this point,” said George Griffin, who was to have been head of William Peace’s education department but left the university in June after just six months. “As is the communication between the faculty and the president.”

This summer, faculty and staff were unnerved when they were asked to sign arbitration agreements that impose a time limit for disputes and prevent employees from taking the university to court. That followed a showdown earlier this year when faculty met with trustees to air complaints against Townsley, who arrived in 2010.

Meanwhile, turnover among university staff has been brisk. A vice president in charge of enrollment left earlier this month. Ann Denlinger, the chief academic officer and former Durham school superintendent, retired suddenly after only one year in the vice president’s job. She has declined to discuss why.

The university has seven vice president positions, while the full-time faculty has dwindled to 26, downsized by buyouts and department closures. Townsley said the full-time faculty will grow to 30 once new hires are finalized this summer.

The reduction in faculty comes as William Peace is moving aggressively to increase enrollment. Enrollment reached 791 last year, and the university hopes it will reach 1,000 by 2016.

“Every year it’s growing,” Townsley said. “Our goal right now is to grow enrollment, and so far so good.”

The 791 students enrolled at William Peace include 621 in the traditional day program and 170 in professional studies, which operates night, weekend and online classes. One-third of the new students last year were male. This fall’s enrollment figures aren’t final, according to the university’s public relations firm, but tuition deposits are up 43 percent from this time last year.

The growth has fueled speculation over the ultimate use of the Seaboard property. University officials have said Peace will form a separate entity to handle the retail development, which will be used as an income-producing investment. But the college is running out of space. This fall, for the first time, 200 students will move off campus to Wolf Creek Apartments, 6 miles away.

Townsley said people are understandably uneasy about all the new directions, but she defended them.

“With any change you’re going to get different perspectives,” she said. “What we’re doing is in line with trends in higher education. I think it’s what students and families are seeking. And I think our outcomes, which have been consistently strong, continue to be consistently strong. I think that speaks to what our faculty and staff are doing and what a great job they’re doing.”

‘What are their priorities?’

Griffin, a 38-year veteran in public education and former school principal in Durham and Burlington, looked forward to working at William Peace last January when he arrived as a part-time faculty member in the education department.

But at his first faculty meeting, he was taken aback when a trio of trustees arrived to hear the concerns of professors, who had complained about the president in late 2012. They were angry, Griffin said, because Townsley had rewritten the college course catalog without faculty input.

Despite the tension, Griffin said, the trustees made it clear the priority was the university’s financial condition, and they backed Townsley.

Griffin said he had a productive meeting with Townsley in June about the education department, which he was to chair starting in July. Then he received an email with an offer, arbitration agreement and a one-week deadline to sign.

Griffin sent back a counter offer that asked for changes in salary and teaching load, he said. Townsley responded, he said, with an email saying she would hire someone else. “It was all done by email, which totally, totally shocked me and surprised me,” he said. “It was very abrupt.”

He said he emailed her back and asked her to meet with him. She agreed. Two hours later, another email from Townsley said there was no need to meet after all, according to Griffin.

In an interview, Townsley said she could not comment on an individual personnel matter but said that faculty responsibilities are well defined, “to keep faculty equitable across the board.”

About the faculty unrest, Townsley said: “Administrators and faculty always have their disagreements … but I came up through the faculty ranks and I do understand the faculty position.”

Days after his departure, Griffin was surprised to pick up the paper and learn about the Seaboard deal.

“You’ve just got to question, what are their priorities?” Griffin said. “They need to be, yes, financially solvent, but at the same time they need to focus on their academic program that they’re offering their students. And I think the faculty is very concerned that that’s not happening.”

A question of arbitration

Lawyers say the arbitration agreements that university faculty were asked to sign are becoming common in private industry. But Robert Kreiser, senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors, said he had never seen a document like it.

“It’s certainly not consistent with the norms of the academic community,” Kreiser said after reviewing a copy of the agreement obtained by The News & Observer.

The agreement is a first for William Peace, which was sued by three music faculty in 2011 after they were dismissed when the department was disbanded. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount of money. The university instead established a musical theater major.

Townsley said arbitration doesn’t interfere with tenure or academic freedom, but rather offers a different methodology for dispute resolution. She said she met with faculty to explain the agreement and gave them more time to think about it. All eventually signed, she said.

“It’s a more efficient process,” she said. “I’m not sure it will keep legal costs down, but you hope that it will be a little bit less expensive and more timely for both the college and for the employees. That’s why I think so many organizations are endorsing it because the court system is so bogged down.”

The university’s legal costs have increased since Townsley took over, according to William Peace’s tax filings. The school’s legal costs jumped from $208,000 in 2010-2011 to nearly $789,000 in 2011-2012.

The arbitration agreements are part of a rapidly changing education landscape, said Roger Christman, associate professor of communication and chairman of the university’s new program in simulation and game design.

“With anything that’s new, you have a little bit of angst and you want to understand it,” Christman said. “The arbitration agreement is a trend that’s happening in higher education.”

‘I loved Peace College’

Moving students off campus is also new for the university. Townsley said more students than expected signed up for the option.

Amber Oliver, a senior from Islip, N.Y., is one of those students. Oliver said she’s apprehensive about the move because she worries about the transportation options that will be available.

But she also had issues with the living conditions on campus. Oliver received a bill this summer from the university for more than $100 in room damage and checkout fees, even though for much of the year her heat didn’t work and the ceiling was dotted with mold, she said.

“I think they’re money hungry,” she said.

Oliver also complained that she’s having trouble finding available classes she needs to graduate. She changed her major from anthropology to liberal studies when the anthropology major was discontinued. She recently contacted her financial aid counselor and found out he no longer worked there, she said.

Oliver said the university wasn’t living up to its motto: “Your success. Our mission.” She said she still loves her professors, and she still feels nostalgic for the college she chose originally.

“I loved Peace College,” she said. “Loved it.”

A surprise deal

The Seaboard deal, which came as a shock to many of the school’s staff and alumnae, has reinforced the perception that the new administration operates without transparency.

Townsley said such accusations are unfair. The school can’t discuss the details of acquiring Seaboard because of a confidentiality agreement as the property’s future is being decided in bankruptcy court, she said. William Peace has a purchase agreement to acquire the property for $20.75 million, but other bidders could still emerge and any sale must be approved by the bankruptcy judge.

Townsley said the purchase, which the trustees approved unanimously, falls in line with the board’s overall investment strategy.

After talking to Townsley, some alumnae have embraced the purchase.

Former faculty member and alumna Carolyn Morrison said she and several others met with the president a few weeks ago.

“I do think it’s probably a good thing to have more land around the college,” said Morrison, a former Wake County school board member. “I came away feeling better about it. When things change, you always feel a little apprehensive. She made me feel more confident.”

But some donors worry that investing so much of the school’s endowment in a single real estate project carries too much risk.

Since the Seaboard announcement, Julia Thomas of Cary, a former board of visitors member, said she’s been trying to get answers about a family scholarship fund established in 2006 by her late mother. Despite two emails to William Peace officials, she has not received an explanation about how the Seaboard investment could affect the scholarship.

The scholarship has never been awarded because the funds were under water following the stock market collapse in 2008. Thomas worries the Seaboard purchase may ruin the chances of the scholarship ever going to a deserving student.

“I find it interesting that WPU saw no need to inform the donors who made the endowment possible of the plans,” Thomas wrote in an email to the university.

In an interview, Thomas said: “My feeling is if you don’t have anything to hide, why are you hiding?”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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