Midtown: Community

Peace University seeks better ties with its Raleigh neighbors

Seeking to shed its reputation as an island on the edge of downtown, William Peace University is taking new steps to build goodwill with neighbors.

The school, formerly known as Peace College, served hot chocolate and cookies to Christmas-time visitors on the Oakwood candlelight tour. Student ambassadors will fan out to nearby streets this spring to distribute free vouchers for the campus coffee shop.

And in a break from past practice, residents are now encouraged to walk through campus on its walkways.

The initiatives are symbolic of a larger effort to create an atmosphere of openness and accessibility at Peace, which has faced criticism for an isolationist bent.

“We want to be good neighbors,” president Debra Townsley said in an interview.

The outreach also comes as Peace seeks to move beyond the turmoil that erupted last summer following its decision to go co-ed.

Peace, formerly a women’s college, is scheduled to enroll men as full-time students this fall. Thirty percent of applications for the fall semester have come from men, and Townsley expects an initial group of about 50 to join the student body of 600 to 800, including some transfer students.

The shift touched off an uproar from angry alumnae and students, who staged protests at the campus gates just as signs ushered in the new name, William Peace University.

The timing is right for outreach, said Beth Cherry, a Peace trustee who has served under three administrations.

Townsley became the school’s 10th president in August 2010. She succeeded the retiring Laura Carpenter Bingham.

“There’s always been a desire to be involved,” Cherry said. “Maybe it’s more vocal. Maybe it’s from being in the public view with changes over the last few months.”

Issues in past

Neighbors say the diplomacy has been needed. Over the years, the school stirred resentment by razing older homes along Blount Street for campus projects, said Matthew Brown, a former Raleigh Historic District commissioner.

“The neighborhoods have had a rough relationship with Peace for some years,” Brown said.

Many remain frustrated by the school’s closing of Franklin Street, a popular cut-through that provided a link to shops and restaurants at Seaboard Station.

“There’s all kinds of families who have been told to get off their campus in the past,” said Tina Govan, a Mordecai resident. “They’re constantly saying, ‘This is private property, keep out.’ It’s not the way most urban colleges behave.”

It’s also no longer the way Peace behaves, Townsley said. Visitors can walk on campus, though Townsley cautioned that public safety officers will continue to approach people at night.

Also, a new chain-link fence will remain to protect a utility area and block a dirt walking path that was too close to a residence hall.

In November, the school promoted officer Michael John to director of public safety. Townsley said officers have been reminded of the new policies.

“When I became aware, I said that we’re part of the neighborhood and certainly our neighbors are welcome to walk across the campus,” Townsley said. “I see plenty of them doing that.”

Shauna Yates is part of a student ambassador group that will walk through the Oakwood neighborhood in April to hand out free coffee coupons. The junior psychology major hopes neighbors will pick up on the meaning.

“We want them to feel free to come on campus,” Yates said. “I want us to interact, so we’re not just this little square box.”

Revitalizing area

Peace has become more active in the Person Street Partnership, said organizer Philip Bernard. The group is working to revitalize run-down, empty storefronts alongside mainstays such as Krispy Kreme and the Person Street Pharmacy.

“For us to make the changes we need to make on the north end of downtown, they really need to be a player,” Bernard said.

The university began working with MMI Public Relations, the Cary-based firm that helped guide Nancy McFarlane’s winning campaign for Raleigh mayor last year.

On a tour of campus, Townsley described plans for a $6 million facelift that will remake the back side of campus.

The renovated athletic center will have a fitness center, weight rooms, a field house, a dance/aerobics studio and locker rooms for both female and male athletes. The changes are part of the university’s plan to start three men’s sports teams this year – basketball, golf and cross country.

The student center will get an updated dining hall and coffee shop as well as game and lounge space, along with student government offices.

Townsley’s visit to an Oakwood gathering is welcomed by neighbors, said Jessica Gotwalt, new president of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood.

“Residents of downtown kind of feel like we’re in this growth together,” said Gotwalt. “We want to be friends with Peace because they are in our backyard.”