Peace College (William Peace University)

Written By Jonathan Martin

In 1857, the Presbyterian Synod of North Carolina sought to establish a school for females. Largely due to the donations of William Peace, the institution became a reality. Peace was a staunch Presbyterian supporter as well as Raleigh’s town commissioner during the construction of the Governor’s Mansion in 1816. With a donation of $10,000 and eight acres of land, Peace allowed for the creation of the institute that later bore his name, Peace College.

The outbreak of the Civil War halted construction plans at Peace College. The Main Building at Peace was used as a Confederate hospital, while the Freedmen’s Bureau operated out of the building after the war. The Presbyterian Church renovated the Main Building in the early 1870s, and Peace Institute opened to incoming female students in 1872.

Peace Institute pioneered higher education for females, especially in offering a variety of programs to its students. The first school of art and painting in the South was established at Peace in 1875. In the 1880s, the institution offered the area’s first cooking school as well as the first kindergarten in North Carolina. At the end of the nineteenth century, Peace Institution had programs for women to earn their whole education at Peace, from kindergarten to college-level courses.

In the early twentieth century, Peace’s board of trustees was composed of local Presbyterians. The name of the school was changed to Peace College in 1943. In addition, in the early 1940s, Peace started programs for females who wished to finish their last two years of high school and their first two years of college. Soon, the institution transitioned into a junior college in the late 1960s, and several buildings were built across campus from 1963 until 1974.

By 1995, Peace College became a four-year college, and in 1997 the college’s first students had earned bachelor degrees. Although Peace has maintained a strong connection to the Presbyterian Church, the institution is independent and open to students of all denominations.

Beginning in 2011, Peace College underwent major changes. The school became coeducational, changed its name to William Peace University, and reduced tuition. A year later it used $11 million of its $33 million endowment (plus a loan) to purchase an aging retail mall, Seaboard Station. All these changes were controversial, and in 2014 three previous presidents wrote an op-ed in the News & Observer opposing the changes.

However, in 2018, the university sold Seaboard Station to a developer for $34 million, rebuilding its endowment, which reached $55 million.

Although college officials had hoped to raise enrollment to 1000, the school reported about 730 students in 2023. Nationwide college enrollment fell during the pandemic and post-pandemic period, and William Peace figures may reflect that fact.

In 2022, the university responded to concerns about its founder, William Peace. Because he was a slaveholder, his statue was removed from campus, although no immediate action was taken to change the university’s name.