Debra Townsley has had an eventful three years as president of William Peace University, the private downtown college transforming itself for the next generation of college students.
Her term began with layoffs aimed at keeping the college afloat in the aftermath of the economic recession. Then, the board of trustees voted to allow men as undergraduates in the college and, within months, they also changed the name of the 150-year-old university to better reflect its baccalaureate and dual-gender status.
In 2012, Townsley welcomed the first men to campus, one third of the college’s second largest incoming class ever. She and the board began to plan new facilities and a master plan for the campus’s future.
In recent weeks, the college put its hat in the ring for the bankrupt Seaboard Station retail center. Townsley says it’s an attempt to bolster the college’s real estate holdings, but neighbors and tenants fear the center’s future with Peace as an owner. They issued a letter May 21 asking Peace to withdraw its bid for the property.
Townsley’s administration has been criticized for its lack of transparency in making big decisions, like the name change and the bid for Seaboard. But she opened up one recent day for Q&A with the Raleigh Public Record. Below, Townsley shares her thoughts on the college’s recent successes, its future plans and, of course, the drama over Seaboard.
Record: Have you found it difficult to balance the college’s history with its future?
Townsley: I have not. The college was chartered in 1857 and the Civil War happened in Raleigh and it became a hospital. Then they boarded up the windows—students say there are still ghosts on the third and fourth floors. Then it became the Freedmen’s Bureau and when that closed, classes began in the 1870s.
It was K-8 coed and then it had a boarding high school and junior college. It dropped the primary grades, and then high school then junior college, and is now a four-year institution. So, over the years, you can see the kinds of changes. I believe that any organization that doesn’t change in its 150-year history probably isn’t in existence and we’ve been around 150-plus years because we’ve done a great job of keeping up with the times. So I believe what has happened in the last couple years is not at all inconsistent with Peace’s history and we plan to be around another 150 years.
Record: How was year one with undergraduate men on campus?
Townsley: We had the second largest incoming group of students in the college’s history, 310 new students. One-third were men, which exceeded the national average conversion rate of 24 percent. First- and second-year retention of returning women went up by 10 percent and the number of returning women that wanted to live on campus went up by 12 percent. Overall, as I’ve said to trustees, the decision was in line with what students were hoping for. Those kinds of numbers are indicative of what students want.
Record: How has your recruiting strategy changed in recent years?
Townsley: We’ve increased the number of admission counselors and expanded the territory for where we go recruiting. We dropped our price by about 8 percent this last fall to bring us more in the range competitively that we thought we should be. We kept our institutional financial aid as it was. And then we’re holding it steady for this coming year. We think we’re now an amazing value for what students get at Peace.
Record: How is the School of Professional Studies working so far? Is it helping to overcome the budget shortfalls of years past, as planned?
Townsley: Enrollment has gone up something like 60 percent. It’s increased phenomenally. Students can now earn a degree either in the evenings, online and/or through our Saturday program. We have degrees in business, psychology and liberal studies in the evening program. And on Saturdays, students can also come back and earn a teaching certificate.
It expands operational time because this expands the use of facilities in the evening. The other thing it’s done is give people access to an affordable private school degree at Peace, which they otherwise might not have the opportunity to do. Students will find we are the least expensive, besides one school.
Record: Digital education has been a focus at Peace. Can you talk about future plans to incorporate online learning or other next-generation learning platforms?
Townsley: We’re looking at MOOCs (massive open online courses). We’re doing some experimenting with “flipping” in the classroom, where your lectures are online and the classroom is focused on the problem-solving discussion. Our political science program is quite innovative. The faculty member in the program and students do four practicum experiences in the field so they can go out and see what they like and don’t like about political science to help them in selecting the direction they want to go. Those are the kinds of things that are innovative and will serve the students well.
Record: Explain some of the growth goals and plans, and how you came to those?
Townsley: We will be doing a master plan this coming academic year. That’s in our strategy. Obviously, it’ll be different if we have different property or not. We are looking at other property (off-campus) for athletic fields and we have enough land to build two or three residence halls on the back part of campus.
We just redid our athletic center and it looks fantastic. We’re in the process of building out space for a bookstore. Then, we are going to update our dining hall.
Our enrollments are growing and we believe that part of that is updating the facilities as necessary. We had to redo the athletic center because we needed men’s locker rooms. That’s where we started this. And we also redid the women’s locker rooms and all mechanical. It hadn’t been redone since it was built in the early 1960s. That helps recruit, because you can’t recruit if you don’t have an up-to-date facility. What we do will meet students needs and/or wants.
Record: What about parking?
Townsley: We are talking about parking possibilities. We have lots on Halifax and a lot on Blount Street, so we’re looking at various alternatives and that will be part of our master planning process this fall.
Record: What financial flexibility do you have in tackling the growth plans?
Townsley: We did take out $6 million in new bonds this spring for the athletic facility. The dining hall and bookstore projects are included in that. The residence halls would be the next step and that would be a separate loan we’d look at.
Record: What colleges have served as models for what you’d like Peace to look like in five or 10 years? How does Seaboard fit into that?
Townsley: McQuire Associates, the higher ed consultant, has coined the term “campus beyond gates.” What schools that have done this have recognized is you can’t just have retail for our students. You really need the local community to support the retail as well because students are gone over holidays and summers. Wake Forest University has Reynolda Village for some quite time. Mary Washington University up in Virginia has one and the University of Central Florida opened a big one, Knights Plaza. Students want to know there are restaurants or places they can run an errand. Families when they come for homecoming or to visit a child want to go out to dinner somewhere and having it nearby is just ideal. We have students that work at Seaboard Station at various businesses.
Record: Why is it important for the university to own it?
Townsley: I’m not sure we’re going to own it. But I do think that we have 150 years in our location and we do plan on being there another 150-plus years so its extremely important to the university to know that the surrounding community is a good place for students to come and offers students the kind of amenities that retail space and restaurants do offer. We have a long-term vested interest in our location and in downtown Raleigh and there aren’t many that can say they have 150 years.
Record: Should that alleviate concerns about Peace owning it?
Townsley: I’ve said that to people, and some believe it and some don’t. If we own it, we think we’ll show over time that we’re good stewards of the neighborhood.
Record: What have been your biggest challenges since stepping in as president in 2010?
Townsley: These jobs are fairly similar in that we have a responsibility to have the school provide a high quality academic program with fantastic living arrangements for students and with co-curricular offerings that support their interests and learning. That’s the challenge of the job. So that’s where a lot of our time goes. But it also goes in fundraising and budgeting. A big challenge was coming in 2010 in a heavy recession that posed challenges for all businesses and colleges and families and everybody working within that recession and we’re still not fully out of it, I don’t think. How you do business in that kind of environment and work through it. That’s one of the reasons we dropped our prices for families.
Record: What about laying off professors? That had to be difficult.
Townsley: That’s the hardest part of a job is if you ever have to do that. You’re affecting people’s lives, and you’re well aware you’re doing that and certainly that’s nothing anybody wants to have to do.
Record: Have you brought back any of those positions?
No, but we have created new positions, a couple of those in new areas. For example, we just started a simulation and game design program. So we’ll be in the process of looking for a professor in that program. We’ve announced a criminal justice program and we’re in the processing of looking for a professor for that.
Record: Your administration has been criticized for its lack of transparency and collaboration with the public, both with the name change and recently with the Seaboard Station issue. Do you have a response to the criticism? Or, any plans to be more transparent in the future?
Townsley: Decisions like that are made by a board of trustees and it’s the administration’s job to carry out what the board has decided the direction of the school should be. I think on certain issues, yes, we should be more transparent. But I think that’s a really hard term to define. What may be transparent to one person is not transparent to another or what’s important to one person, someone else may never care about. It’s hard to draw those kinds of lines between what’s transparent and what’s not.
Certainly we have a strong publicity program. We send out press releases all the time and have gotten engaged in the local communities in recent years. We have been at community meetings. They’ve invited us to come talk about what we’re doing. We have hosted Oakwood Christmas tour on our campus. We run an Easter egg roll and Santa story hour. The North Carolina Symphony and Manning series come three times a year and is free and open to the public. New musical and theater programs we invite people to. We’ve been working hard to be good neighbors to the community.
Record: Any response to the letter you received Tuesday from the neighborhood CACs to withdraw your bid for the property?
Townsley: No. We haven’t written a response. We’ve been here 150 years and it’s important to us what happens in the community because we plan on being there 150 years.
Record: What are you most excited about for Peace’s future?
Townsley: Our academic programs are very strong and the faculty have done a great job of implementing new programs that serve the students really well and we know that by looking at our outcomes. Over 90 percent of our grads are in jobs or grad school within one year of graduation. That’s an amazing statistic. … I think it’s just exciting to be in downtown Raleigh—I believe we have one of the best locations to go to college in the country. To see the growth that Raleigh is experiencing and know we are part of that and we’re also growing is really exciting.