RALEIGH — Some students and alumnae of Peace College, now known as William Peace University, held a protest on the city sidewalk in front of the campus Monday after the school enacted new restrictions for demonstrations on Peace property.
The daylong event, on the first day of classes, was staged at the Peace Street entrance to the campus to protest changes at the women’s college, which will become co-ed next fall.
Students wore T-shirts in the school’s bright green color and held signs that said "What stinks?? WPU" and "Peace – I am not William." The scorching day was punctuated by honks from passing motorists and from workers in dump trucks at a construction site across the street. The protest was to include a candlelight vigil Monday night and is expected to continue today.
"This is the only chance we’ve had to voice our opinions," said Rachel Leigh House, a senior from Raleigh, who pointed out that the changes were announced in July when no students were on campus.
In a prepared statement, the university’s Board of Trustees said it recognized that "this is an emotional issue for some, and one that these individuals feel should be expressed through a peaceful protest."
The statement said the university was working with the Raleigh Police Department to ensure the safety of students and the protection of their learning environment during the protest.
According to a three-page policy posted on the William Peace website, the university "recognizes the importance of speech, expression and assembly to the exchange ofideas, which is essential to the intellectual, cultural and social life of the University."
But the policy also includes 12 rules for protests, regulating how, when and where demonstrations can be held. The policy requires protesters to notify William Peace officials in writing at least 24 hours in advance of a demonstration. Protests must take place in a location designated by campus officials, according to the policy, and cannot disrupt operations or traffic.
Freedom to protest
Free speech advocates say the policy raises questions about Peace’s commitment to its students’ rights.
"It is inconsistent with Peace’s promise of free expression for the administration to have total discretion to set the location of demonstrations," said Adam Kissel, a vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, watchdog group. "Under this policy, students expressing unpopular opinions can be herded off to a remote part of campus, while other students can be given a prominent venue for their expression."
Erika Klees, a senior from Tacoma, Wash., said students who pay tuition at the private college should be able to protest on the campus freely.
She said students were assured last winter by administrators that Peace would not go co-ed. But the changes were announced after first-year students were admitted and paid tuition deposits.
"It’s so disheartening that we can be treated this way," Klees said. "You just feel betrayed."
Alumnae have already put up fierce opposition to the changes, organizing on Facebook to circulate petitions and plan protest activities.
‘Will be implemented’
On Saturday, as Hurricane Irene’s winds swirled in Raleigh, students moved into William Peace dorms without the helping hands of alumnae. Peace graduates have long volunteered to help move in new students. This year, though, the alumnae were told not to come to campus.
In a statement, the Board of Trustees said the university had been informed that some alumnae were planning to disrupt move-in day. The decision was made to limit their participation "to ensure the safety and privacy of our students," the statement said.
Since the changes were announced in July, trustees and the university’s president, Debra Townsley, have said that admitting men is key to the survival of the women’s college, which was founded more than 150 years ago.
"We acknowledge that some are having difficulty in accepting this new path for our educational institution," the trustees’ statement added. "The decision to become co-educational has been made, and it will be implemented. We know that this transition is the best choice to ensure the long-term success for Peace."