Armed with signs and long-stemmed flowers, students protested outside the gates of William Peace University on Thursday, aiming their complaints directly at President Debra Townsley.
They were joined by several faculty and staff members, who said they support students’ claims about a declining academic environment and an atmosphere of intimidation at the former women’s college in downtown Raleigh.
Protesters included male students at the newly coed university, and they encouraged passing drivers to honk in support. They carried signs with slogans such as “Townsley needs to PEACE out” and “Change is easy, integrity is hard.”
Maigan Kennedy, 25, a protest organizer, said her fellow students were just glad to air their concerns for the world to hear.
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“It’s sad that we can’t voice them on campus,” she said. “It’s sad that it took a public protest in front of our beloved school to have our voices heard.”
Kennedy and four others recently were brought up on student conduct charges for disorderly conduct and violations of visitation and solicitation policies. They think the charges were retaliation for a recent petition drive that gathered more than 300 signatures calling for Townsley’s resignation. Three hearings are scheduled for next week; two have already been held.
Townsley could not be reached Thursday, but earlier this week she chalked up the criticism to a difficult transition for the former women’s college during an evolving time for higher education in general.
Beth Cherry, a 1972 alumna and chairwoman of the trustees, issued a statement Thursday saying the university is committed to free speech.
“We welcome questions and comments from anyone, whether they are students, staff, faculty, alumni or the community,” her statement said. “Individuals have the right to offer constructive criticism based on factual information and we welcome discussion about the future of William Peace University.”
She also defended Townsley and said that the trustees had recently extended her contract.
“The Trustees believe the decisions we have made have strengthened William Peace University and ensured its future,” Cherry said. “The trustees believe President Townsley is the right person to lead William Peace University during this time and recently voted unanimously to extend her contract.”
Also Thursday, 14 faculty members issued a signed statement taking credit for an eight-page letter sent in March to the Board of Trustees. By late in the day, the number of signers had increased to 20 of 24 full-time faculty, said David McLennan, professor of political science.
‘We’re going to own it’
“We just said, ‘To heck with this retribution. We’re going to own it, and we’re going to say it publicly,’ ” McLennan said.
The letter, reported Wednesday in The News & Observer, cited a litany of concerns, including faculty and staff turnover, dropping graduation rates, unsecured student records and university buildings with malfunctioning heat, asbestos problems and infestations of poisonous spiders. They said the full-time faculty had dropped to alarming levels, even as enrollment had grown substantially.
Thursday’s statement said the letter was never intended to be made public. McLennan said Townsley had tried to tell the alumnae board that students were behind the letter.
Now that the letter had been reported, the statement said, “we feel it is imperative to attribute proper credit to its authorship.”
The statement continued: “We believe that the William Peace University Board of Trustees has an obligation to independently investigate our concerns and take appropriate action.”
‘They don’t care’
McClennan said Peace leaders aren’t listening to a growing chorus of dissatisfaction with what’s happening at the university.
“The board is not even acknowledging that there could be legitimate concerns brought forward by their major stakeholders,” he said.
Cecilia Dhali, a senior from Cary, will graduate from WPU next month. She wanted to major in human resources, but the university discontinued it as a major. For weeks, she said, she has been trying to nail down whether her credits are in order to graduate. She was told that her graduation application was lost, she said.
Dhali said she never had a problem with the university admitting male students.
“The problem is not that we went coed,” Dhali said. “We love our alma mater. The problem is they don’t care about our opinions.”