Turmoil continues, tension builds at Peace University in Raleigh

June 18, 2014 

Trustees of a public or private institution of higher education sometimes can become too insulated from faculty and students and even from the concerns of the community that has historically supported that institution. They follow their president and take their cues from him or her. That seems to be the case with William Peace University of Raleigh, long a stalwart in the community for most of its history as a school for young women.

Sometimes, trustees are right to follow the president’s lead. In the case of the tumult that has surrounded William Peace University, there is much we don’t know about the apparent discontent of some faculty members and complaints from students about a variety of issues.

In addition, the university has risked a huge chunk of its endowment to buy the adjoining Seaboard commercial area.

Now Debra Townsley, the Peace president who has been under fire from faculty and students for some time, has offered buyouts to many tenured faculty members. In exchange for $30,000, those faculty members would leave by the end of this month and surrender any claims against the school.

Why the enforced silence?

They’d also be required to enter a cone of silence, agreeing not to say anything bad about the school. The agreement even suggests that if faculty members are questioned, they should say: “I’ve opted to resign as part of a Voluntary Separation Program offered by the University. I wish the best for the William Peace University community.”

This part of the agreement in particular seems suspiciously coincidental considering that some faculty members recently wrote a letter to trustees criticizing Townsley, saying they had lost confidence in her leadership.

It’s also questionable that a university, where a cornerstone of the mission is to encourage free thought and free speech, would attempt to muzzle departing faculty members. Yes, private businesses often have such requirements in buyout agreements, but most have to do with protecting proprietary information that could aid a competitor.

That Townsley surely must have supported this provision is clearly bothersome. Her compensation, reported to be $391,000 by the Chronicle of Higher Education, also has raised some eyebrows, considering that it is higher than that of several chancellors in the public university system and seems very generous indeed at a school with 800 day students. Her pay also may speak to the isolation of trustees.

A defense is needed

It’s disturbing that Peace trustees have not strongly defended their actions or specifically addressed the complaints of students and faculty. There has been some comment, but not much.

Raleigh has a keen interest in what happens to Peace, which has undergone the change of going coed to help it survive, apparently the same reason it decided to take over the Seaboard Station. The community has long supported what many still call “Peace College” with affection and contributions. The school is in downtown Raleigh, providing an oasis from the government complexes in the city’s core.

There are hundreds if not thousands of Peace alums in this community. Many are quite unhappy with what’s going on at this alma mater.

Townsley has ducked comment on the buyout simply by saying it is a personnel matter. It may be for individuals, but she needs to offer a more comprehensive explanation of the general policy.

The situation at Peace, which continues to be unsettled at best, is reflecting poorly on the institution, which deserves better. The demand for silence from faculty members who take the buyout certainly raises questions and justifiably makes observers wonder why the university is so eager to keep everything quiet.

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