President's Biography

Dr. Debra M. Townsley is president of William Peace University (formerly Peace College), a private four-year university located in downtown Raleigh, N.C. Its mission is to prepare students for careers in the organizations of tomorrow. Rooted in the liberal arts tradition, students develop an appreciation for life-long learning, a focus on meaningful careers, and skills for ethical citizenship.

Inaugurated as the 10th president of William Peace University in August 2010, Townsley oversees a student body of more than 1,000 full and part-time students enrolled in Peace's undergraduate day, evening, online and Saturday noneprograms, and an alumni body of more than 9,000. An all-women's institution for its first 152 years, Peace began offering coeducational evening courses through the William Peace School of Professional Studies in 2009. In 2011, Peace College transitioned to William Peace University and began admitting male students to its day program in fall 2012. Townsley's efforts as president include an emphasis on reviewing strategies to encourage new course offerings, athletic programs, campus facilities, staff, faculty and enrollment as part of overall expansion activities to accommodate future growth for the university.

Townsley has restructured the university's core curriculum to teach students the essentials needed in today's professional world. Under her leadership, students are required to take a personal financial management course, which teaches them how to pay back credit quickly to excel as consumers, among other concepts. All students are required to take writing courses every year taught by English faculty to ensure that they have strong communication skills, regardless of their chosen major. They participate in the Portfolio Seminars Series, in which they take classes focusing on career and professional development. In this series, they learn how to construct résumés, build portfolios, interview for jobs (including proper fashions and business etiquette) and apply for graduate school. On average, more than 90 percent of the university's graduates are placed in jobs or graduate school within one year of graduation. In fact, 2014 University data indicated a 97% job/graduate school rate for graduates of the 2013 class.

Other improvements made during Townsley's tenure at William Peace University include the addition of several programs and degrees, such as majors in Anthropology, Criminal Justice, Environmental Science, Global StudiesSimulation and Game Design, and Writing, along with minors in Forensics and Women's Studies, Transfer2Success, an educational partnership with Wake Technical Community College, and online degrees. The latter offers a community college transfer program whereby once a student has completed two and a half years of education at Wake Tech, he or she can apply for admission to William Peace University to earn a bachelor's degree from the latter in one and a half years.

For the fall 2012 semester, the institution launched Saturdays@Peace, a new program that will allow students to attend classes and earn a bachelor's degree by taking classes on the downtown campus on Saturdays. That same semester, William Peace University began offering men's basketball, cross country and golf. As an effort to increase accessibility to the university and address the rising cost of education, a decision occurred to drop day tuition 7.8 percent for students effective fall 2012.

The results of these expansions under Townsley were dramatic accomplishments. During the 2012-2013 school year, the enrollment figure for William Peace University totaled 725 students. A total of 310 new students enrolled in William Peace University, including first-year, transfer and re-entry individuals, with 104 of them being male, in the first year the school became coeducational. In September 2012, William Peace University announced that its retention rate from first-year to second-year students was 80.88 percent, a substantial increase from the institution's previous three-year average of 69.47 percent. Under Townsley's leadership, William Peace University hopes to continue its strong rate of new enrollment and retention of students.

Prior to joining William Peace University, Townsley served as the sixth president - and first female president - of Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., for 12 years, following one year as its dean of academic affairs. As president, she introduced several strategic planning initiatives in order to reconfirm the college's mission and rebrand it, including the development of new specializations, an improved academic profile of the students, and the building of a campus infrastructure with new facilities and advanced technology. Townsley created a flexible and distinctive evening undergraduate and graduate online program that broadened the school's appeal as well. Under her leadership, Nichols regained financial stability in the midst of a recession and nearly doubled its enrollment, growing from 620 full-time day students to 1,150.

Dr. Townsley's career in higher education began in 1980, when she accepted a position at Marymount University of Virginia as an assistant professor of business. Three years later she joined the administration of Northern Virginia Community College as assistant division chair for accounting and data processing departments, and assistant professor of business. From 1987 until 1997, Townsley served as the director of undergraduate and graduate management studies at St. Michael's College in Vermont.

Her professional career began in the private sector as a marketing representative with IBM and later as a senior consultant and project manager with Booz Allen Hamilton.

Townsley holds a B.S. in business administration with concentrations in marketing and management from American University, an MBA from George Washington University, an M.A. in psychology and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Vermont. Her dissertation for the latter degree addressed an independent and reciprocal model for the fellowship-leadership exchange.

An international lecturer on effective leadership, Townsley has presented her research on three continents, including Asia and Australia. She has authored or co-authored several studies in business and management journals, such as Strategic Management, and has participated in a variety of organizational proceedings.

Townsley holds numerous professional positions on the state and national levels, including serving as chair of the audit committee and a board member of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). She also serves as chair of The USA South Athletic Conference and the Cooperating Raleigh Colleges and is a member of the Independent College Enterprise (ICE) board and the NCAA Division III Chancellors/Presidents Advisory Group. 

In 2011, she was named a mentor within the NCAA Outreach Program for First-Time Chancellors and Presidents. The NCAA Outreach Program provides new chancellors and presidents of Division III colleges with important information about the NCAA and the management of intercollegiate athletics. The program is designed by the NCAA to lay the groundwork for greater presidential participation in the governance structure. Townsley has shared her experiences and offered best practices with such institutions as Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. She has participated as presenter at the annual NCAA Outreach Program for new presidents at the NCAA Annual Convention since the program's inception.

Professional honors received by Townsley include the Jackie M. Gibbons Leadership Award from Vermont Women in Higher Education and Young Career Woman from the Professional Women's Association of Annandale, Va. In 2012, she was named one of Triangle Business Journal's top Women in Business for her activities as president of William Peace University.

Active in her local community, Townsley has participated in many activities involving the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. One occasion was as a panelist on a discussion regarding the issues and challenges of maintaining a competitive advantage in a global economy at the Leadership Raleigh Education Day event on Feb. 14, 2012. Under her leadership, William Peace University sponsored the first Women's Executive Luncheon of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce in 2012, which featured a discussion of "Women in Politics: Heeding the Call of Public Service." Townsley is also a member of the board of directors for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a nonprofit organization created by a coalition of community advocates, corporate leaders and government officials to promote the district as a dynamic element of North Carolina's capital city, where she has led William Peace University's participation in several of its events.

Townsley's previous professional and civic activities before joining William Peace University include serving as chair and a member of the Colleges of Worcester Consortium, Inc. and The Commonwealth Coast Conference. She was a board member serving on the executive, accountability and administration committees and chairing the audit committee for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM). Townsley was on the board of advisors for Webster-Dudley United Way and was a commissioner on the for the New England Association of Schools & Colleges' Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. She participated on the Webster Five Cents Savings Bank advisory board.  

A native of Florida, Townsley resides in Raleigh.