Diverse Conversations: Leading a Small Liberal Arts University

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by Matthew Lynch

Debra Townsley

William Peace University President Dr. Debra Townsley says that MOOCs are likely to “take learning in new directions that we may or may not be able to imagine today.”

For those who aspire to become a college/university president, one of the biggest decisions that you will make is whether a large or small college/university presidency is the right choice. For this installment of Diverse Conversations, I interviewed Dr. Debra Townsley, president of William Peace University in Raleigh, N.C., to find out what it’s like to lead a small liberal arts university. Inaugurated as the 10th president of the university in August 2010, Townsley oversees a student body of nearly 800 full- and part-time students enrolled in WPU’s undergraduate day, evening, online and Saturday programs, and an alumni body of more than 9,000.

Q: What attracted you to a small liberal arts university?

A: Small, private institutions are connected learning communities. Faculty directly teach all students. Co-curricular programming is intentional and an integral part of the learning. Students make life-long friends and are part of a connected alumni network. I appreciate these connections and believe they lead to strong learning opportunities for everyone in the community.

Q: What do you like most about leading a liberal arts university?

A: We do make a difference in the lives of our students. I have the good fortune of hearing this when I meet alumni, who have had a chance to experience what their education has afforded them and meant to them.

Q: Has your impression of William Peace University changed since the first time you were on campus?

A: I have learned more about Peace since my first visit, but my view of WPU has not changed since my first visit. On my first visit, Peace seemed like a community with dedicated faculty and staff who cared about students’ success and a community with students and alumni who had a love for the school. These first impressions have been and continue to be true.

Q: You’ve been president of William Peace University for three years. During that time, you have been able to witness, study and assess the trends in higher education. What trends do you see emerging in higher education?

A: Higher education is changing because of multiple external forces, such as the economy, demographics, student learning needs, technology and regulations, just to name a few. Current trends indicate that students (and families) want to know there are job opportunities upon graduation, have limited resources for higher education, and learn through new methods like hands-on learning, experiential learning, use of technology, cases, discussion and/or multiple evaluative tools, to name a few.

One trend getting much attention is the massive open online course (MOOC). There is a debate over MOOCs — their usefulness in student learning, their replacement of the classroom, their long-term costs, etc. However, this was a similar conversation several decades ago when distance or online learning options were developing. I remember a faculty member telling me 15 years ago that it was a waste to invest in online education because it would not last. Now, we know that online is here to stay and that online learning can be very successful. MOOCs are likely to further develop and take learning in new directions that we may or may not be able to imagine today.

There will likely always be a place for classroom learning, but other ways of teaching and learning have emerged and will continue to emerge. This is what makes the industry challenging, but rewarding, as we seek the best way for students to reach their potentials.

Q: What are some of the challenges facing you and William Peace University in this upcoming year?

A: Small privates are similar in our challenges. We provide a quality education with limited resources, and we are always seeking new ways to do this. We complete the matriculation of a class, while starting the process all over again. We are finalizing our admission for fall 2013 with the largest-ever incoming class and total enrollment but have also started receiving students for tours, inquiries and applications for the fall of 2014. It is a continuous cycle. I do believe higher education and the expectation for higher education is continual improvement, thus continual change; and change is hard for some people. This is an increasing challenge to resolve in higher education — the conflict between status quo and change.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in this upcoming year?

A: I am most looking forward to the students being back on campus. The students at WPU are engaged and fun to be with. At the same time, I always look forward to graduation. It is my favorite day of the year — not because the students are leaving, but because it is gratifying to see students arrive on campus and graduate four years later with confidence and hope for their futures. Graduation is a proud day for students and families, but it is also a proud day for us as educators to believe that we made a difference in each student’s life in some small way.

Q: Do you have any parting messages for our readers, many of whom are our current and future college/university presidents?

A: I believe the presidency of a college or university is the best job. We are in a challenging, changing industry. We work with students of all ages, which keeps us young in thought. We can feel a sense of accomplishment in our daily and strategic initiatives but, more importantly, in knowing that we have truly made a difference in some way — small or large — in an individual’s life. How many jobs give you this chance?

That concludes my interview. I would like to thank Dr.Townsley for consenting to this interview.

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