William Peace University president under fire from students, faculty

jstancill@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2014 

WPU-NE-042214-CCS

William Peace University’s administration is under siege, not only from alumnae, but from students and faculty. Students in a group called “We Want Peace” have collected some 300 signatures on a petition calling for President Debra Townsley to resign.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • William Peace University

    Enrollment: About 800 day students

    Tuition: $24,450 a year

    Room, board, fees: $9,875 a year

    History: Founded in 1857. Peace Institute, 1872. Later, Peace College, offering two years of high school and two years of college. Finally, a four-year college, awarding first bachelor’s degrees in 1997. Admitted men in 2012. Affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

— Debra Townsley, the president of William Peace University, is facing intense criticism from students and faculty, who describe a deteriorating academic environment and a fear of retaliation on the downtown Raleigh campus.

Five students who recently circulated a student petition were informed by the university this week that they face disciplinary proceedings for disorderly conduct and violations of Peace’s visitation and solicitation policies. The students say the charges are retribution for their petition, which amassed more than 300 signatures calling for Townsley’s immediate resignation.

The disciplinary hearings were originally scheduled for Thursday afternoon, during a period when a student protest is planned outside the university’s entrance.

“It’s absurd,” said Maigan Kennedy, a 25-year-old student from Durham and one of the organizers charged. “I knew at some point there would be some retaliation from the administration. It’s appalling they would level bogus claims against students for something we have every right to do.”

Meanwhile, Peace faculty sent an eight-page letter to trustees saying they don’t have confidence in Townsley. The unsigned letter, obtained by The News & Observer, cites a litany of concerns, including staff turnover, dropping graduation rates, unsecured student records and university buildings with malfunctioning heat, asbestos problems and infestations of poisonous spiders.

The letter said the administration is destroying Peace’s credibility and taking advantage of students.

“Peace has become an institution driven by mediocrity, suspicion, and fear, a university desperate for tuition dollars but entirely unwilling to provide students with the support and encouragement they need to complete their degrees,” the letter said.

In an interview Tuesday, Townsley said the university is growing and evolving in a difficult environment for higher education, particularly small private colleges. She pointed out that upperclassmen enrolled when the school was a women’s college, Peace College, before it admitted men and changed its name to William Peace University.

“Change is very difficult,” Townsley said. “I am all about academic integrity. We are working very hard on academic integrity and ensuring a strong academic program.”

Townsley said she could not talk about individual students’ disciplinary issues, but she said the hearings are “not about the petition. It is about something else.”

Kennedy’s notification of the disciplinary hearing cited violations of visitation and solicitation policies and disorderly conduct in two dorms at 11:30 p.m.

“We don’t allow solicitation, especially really late at night when students are sleeping in their residence halls,” Townsley said of university rules.

Years of criticism

The latest unrest comes after several years of fierce criticism of Townsley and the trustees by alumnae. Last year, some donors were upset when the university sank millions of dollars from its endowment into the acquisition of Seaboard Station, a retail development near the campus. Critics also complained that the university had removed trustee names from its website; the list has since been posted on the site.

Many faculty have been reluctant to speak publicly, they say, for fear of being fired. The number of full-time faculty at the school has been almost halved in the past five years, while the number of part-time adjunct faculty has grown. Last year, professors were asked to sign arbitration agreements that impose a time limit for disputes and prevent employees from taking the university to court.

Unhappy students, who formed a group called “We Want Peace,” said they were motivated to create the petition after they learned that a popular English professor was not renewed for next year.

Katie Beth Jenkins, 19, a first-year student, said that on her tour of Peace last year, the guide told her that professors had an open door and were always available to support students.

“They’re firing teachers, so that’s no longer available,” Jenkins said.

Now, she added, “they’re hiring more adjunct professors, but they’re only here during their scheduled class times or their scheduled office hours.”

Townsley said the university is in the process of hiring five new full-time faculty members.

Roger Christman, an associate professor of communications, simulation and game design, said he was aware of the faculty letter but didn’t know if it reflects a consensus.

“I support the school, I support the institution,” Christman said. “I believe in our mission. I know that we are a transformational experience for our students. We have wonderful faculty and staff here. I see it every day.”

Beth Cherry, chairwoman of the Peace trustees, said some faculty were not aware the letter was sent on their behalf.

“It is very difficult to put a lot of validity into something that is not signed,” she said. “We don’t know who wrote it.”

Cherry said she was unaware that students were upset and that she had not seen the petition.

“I have not had any conversations with a student who is unhappy,” she said. “This has all come about very suddenly.”

The faculty letter suggested that the university is suffering because of Townsley’s decisions. And it points out that faculty have not had a raise since 2007, with Peace salaries close to the bottom of universities in North Carolina.

Townsley’s total compensation is $391,605, compared to $158,541 for Jo Allen, the president of the larger Meredith College, according to 2011 figures published last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The website Gawker named Townsley as one of the top five “most overpaid college presidents in America,” when comparing salaries based on the size of the colleges’ budgets.

Cherry said the president had not received a raise since she came to Peace.

“The board completely backs and supports Dr. Townsley,” Cherry said. “She is well qualified, and the board believes she is the right one to lead William Peace University forward.”

Townsley has fulfilled her promise to significantly grow the university, which had more than 800 students in the day program last fall, compared to fewer than 650 five years ago. The growth has led to a squeeze of student space; juniors and seniors now live in an apartment complex miles from campus.

Asbestos and spiders

The faculty letter made serious claims about problems at the school, including possible compliance issues with nine accreditation standards.

Among the faculty claims:

• Graduation rates falling from 35 percent to 30 percent.

• Three asbestos violations cited by OSHA.

• Complaints of no heat in some dorm rooms and falling tiles, plus “large outbreaks of dangerous brown recluse spiders.”

• Four registrars in three years, resulting in “student transcripts (that) were unsecured, left piled on the floor,” and possible instances of students graduating without completing the necessary requirements.

• Faculty-student ratio that went from 1:15 to 1:34.

• Curriculum decisions that are driven by the administration, not faculty. “The administration intimidated and bullied the faculty, with explicit threats of termination, into accepting curricular changes,” the letter said.

Townsley disputed some of the statistics cited, such as a claim that less than half of student credit hours are now taught by full-time faculty. Of the heating issue, she said a boiler broke and the university supplied students with portable heaters while the boiler was replaced. Of the spiders, she said: “To tell you the truth, I am not aware of that. I mean we live in the South; we have everything treated with pest control. Somebody may have seen a spider and we would have certainly taken care of it. They are here in North Carolina.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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