RALEIGH — William Peace University is offering buyouts to many, if not all, of its tenured faculty.
Fifteen faculty members have been offered payments of $30,000 each if they leave by June 30 and sign an agreement giving up tenure status and releasing all claims against the university, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The News & Observer.
The buyouts were extended to professors from a variety of academic departments – anthropology, biology, communications, English, math, philosophy, political science and psychology.
The agreement includes a nondisparagement clause that would prevent departing professors from speaking ill of the university. It includes prescribed language that faculty members would be required to utter if asked why they left the university’s employment: “I’ve opted to resign as part of a Voluntary Separation Program offered by the University. I wish the best for the William Peace University community.”
The buyouts come two months after a majority of full-time faculty signed an eight-page letter to trustees with a host of complaints about Debra Townsley, the university president.
Among the concerns: faculty turnover; worsening graduation rates; unsecured student records; and university buildings with inadequate heat; asbestos problems and infestations of poisonous spiders. The faculty described a deteriorating academic environment, with a decline in full-time faculty as enrollment had grown rapidly.
Around the same time, students protested and collected hundreds of signatures on a petition calling for Townsley to resign. But trustees said they supported Townsley and extended her contract.
Townsley declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement: “This is a personnel matter and is confidential,” she said of the buyouts. “Voluntary separation plans are strictly voluntary and can allow an opportunity for those professionals to pursue other areas they are interested in.”
Professors who received the buyout offers declined to comment. It’s unknown how many will accept the deal.
Roger Christman, an associate professor of communications, simulation and game design, said he is not tenured and did not receive a buyout offer.
“If people are not happy, you could look at this as an opportunity for transition,” said Christman, who is faculty moderator. “There’s always two ways of looking at things.”
It’s unclear whether the buyouts are related to the university’s financial condition. Townsley arrived at the former Peace College in 2010 and soon began to shake up the staff and reorganize academic programs. Firings and buyouts came in waves; tenured music professors who were forced out sued the university and later settled.
The number of full-time faculty has been halved in the past five years while the university hired more part-time adjunct professors. Some academic programs were dropped as new ones were added. The women’s college changed its name and admitted men in the fall of 2012. Townsley and trustees said the changes were necessary for the school to remain financially viable.
The university has also seen rapid turnover in the administration. Vice President for Academic Affiairs Cindy Gnadinger leaves the university Friday to take a similar position at a college in Kentucky. She is the third chief academic officer at WPU since early 2012.
Last year, WPU shocked the community with its purchase of the adjacent Seaboard Station retail center, dedicating part of its endowment to the real estate venture.
Enrollment has grown to about 800 students from 650, likely strengthening the university’s bottom line.
Anita Levy of the American Association of University Professors said she didn’t know what to make of the buyouts targeted at tenured faculty.
“It sounds like it’s not coming out of financial issues but rather they’re looking to quiet opposition,” said Levy, associate secretary of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the association. “It’s a move against faculty and faculty governance. … That would be highly suspect.”
While nondisparagement clauses are increasingly common, Levy added, she had never come across one that included text directing a departing employee about what to say.
Maigan Kennedy, a rising senior, expressed sadness that some of her favorite professors may be on the way out. She called them “the soul of the university.”
“I want to say that I’m appalled, but I’m not surprised,” she said of the buyout offers. “I knew that at some point retaliation would come from the administration and it would fall the hardest among these faculty members who were so brave to fight for what they thought was best for students and the institution.”
Kennedy had been among five student petition organizers who were brought before an internal hearing on charges of disorderly conduct and violation of solicitation policies in April. In the end, she said, she and the other students received warnings.
On Thursday, Kennedy said she wouldn’t return to WPU in the fall.
“It’s difficult for me to think of a positive outcome,” she said.