William Peace University names new president
William Peace University’s next president is an administrator with experience in recruiting students and managing growth at Queens University in Charlotte.
Brian Ralph, vice president of enrollment management at Queens, will become president of William Peace on Aug. 17, succeeding Debra Townsley, who retired from the 1,000-student private university in downtown Raleigh. The hire was announced Wednesday.
At Queens, Ralph, 44, helped grow undergraduate enrollment by 60 percent in the last decade and was part of a team that accomplished a $120 million fund-raising campaign. He also worked in enrollment management and marketing at Bethany College in West Virginia and in admissions for Hocking College in Ohio. Since 1999, he has been a part-time senior associate with a consulting firm that helps colleges plan and execute enrollment strategies.
Since 2003, Ralph has managed enrollment at Queens, which has similarities to William Peace. They were both founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1857 and both are former women’s colleges in large cities.
The former Peace College became coed in 2012 in a process that angered many alumnae, and the campus underwent dramatic change during Townsley’s five-year tenure.
In an interview Wednesday, Ralph said he sees a bright future for William Peace.
“It’s perfectly positioned to provide all the benefits of a smaller university, yet adjacent to a metropolitan area, which I think is a really great blend for students who want the best of both worlds,” he said. “Peace has all of that.”
Ralph was greeted by enthusiastic cheers and a dance by a gaggle of students on campus to oversee first-year orientation. They stood in line to offer him notes, and he posed for selfies with students holding cellphone cameras. One of them, a student who also had the last name Ralph, got a hug from the future president.
He said he saw opportunities to expand academic programming and men’s athletics to help attract more students. The university has about 800 traditional undergraduate and about 250 adult students who are working on degrees through a professional studies program that offers night, weekend and online classes.
During the search process, Ralph visited the campus on three occasions and met with groups of faculty, students and staff. WPU Trustee Chairman Fredrick Kelly Jr. said Ralph emerged quickly as a leading contender and was unanimously supported by the search committee and trustees.
“The thing that impressed us about Brian was his track record at Queens, particularly in the areas of enrollment – looked very, very attractive to us,” Kelly said. “And he brought an energy and vitality that excited all of us.”
Townsley and the board oversaw the transformation of Peace College, a women’s college, to the renamed William Peace University. The decision to admit men prompted some alumnae and students to hold protests outside the front gates.
While the student body grew, the full-time faculty shrank. A few academic departments were dropped, and faculty buyouts and staff turnover came in waves. New programs were added in video game design and musical theater in an effort to draw more students.
In 2013, the university invested nearly two-thirds of its $33 million endowment to buy the nearby Seaboard Station retail center. That decision was greeted with dismay by some donors and alumnae who saw it as a huge gamble.
The faculty were also outspoken about changes, with a majority of full-time professors sending a letter to trustees last year declaring no confidence in Townsley. The letter said the new Peace was “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.”
Professors cited a number of deficiencies, including lax handling of student transcripts, declining graduation rates, and campus buildings with malfunctioning heat and spider infestations.
Townsley and board leaders maintained that going co-ed was critical to Peace’s survival. They attributed alumnae activism to the decision and insisted that expanding the campus was the only way for the university to remain financially viable.
“I’m hearing from almost every group that I’ve met with so far a real eagerness to engage in conversations about what the future of William Peace should be,” Ralph said. “The identity was fundamentally changed in the last several years, and I think that part of those conversations is going to be about how do we build on this new foundation and cast a long-term vision as a coeducational William Peace University.”
One of his first tasks this fall, he said, would be to connect with faculty to have “candid conversations” and hire a chief academic officer.
Alumnae said they hoped the new leadership could heal past rifts.
Miriam Dorsey, a Raleigh alumna who has been critical of Townsley’s administration, said Ralph had a good presence at a recent campus forum.
“I was impressed with the fact that he was interested in working on learning the culture of Peace and meeting students, faculty, alums and staff and would respect the history and traditions of Peace,” she said.
Dorsey said she was happy with the outcome, but other alumnae may reserve judgment.
“This is an issue of trust,” she said. “Many alumnae will take a wait-and-see attitude because they’ve been burned by the Townsley administration.”
Women’s colleges, particularly, have struggled to draw enough students, and the number of all-female colleges has dwindled in recent years. Nationally, small liberal arts colleges are navigating a tough environment because of demographic shifts and students demands for online and career preparation.
Ralph said William Peace has an enviable niche as a university that provides an intimate learning environment in an urban setting with plenty of internship and cultural opportunities.
“That can’t be undersold, and it’s a really tremendous opportunity for students to engage in a very diverse learning environment,” he said. “I think that’s really important and frankly not easily replicated.”
Current employment: Vice president of enrollment management at Queens University since 2003; part-time senior associate consultant at Ruffalo Noel-Levitz, higher education consulting firm, since 1999.
Education: Doctorate in organizational communication and culture, Ohio University, 2002; MBA, Ohio University, 1993; bachelor of science, Bloomsburg University, 1992.
Family: Wife, Kristen Ralph; three daughters, ages 15, 14 and 11.