We Are All Webster: Building community from many identities, owning our biases, infusing diversity with inclusion | Webster University

2018 Fall Convocation

THURSDAY, August 23, 2018

[Student Video opens event]

Those are our students! Aren’t we all lucky? And for those students, you are there faculty and staff – and aren’t they lucky? It’s a wonderful thing.

So welcome. I’m really glad to see everyone. I know some of you have been very interesting things this summer, some of you are joining us for the very first time as members of this community. It is a wonderful community. You can see the fruits of our labor in the stories of those great student stories.

Here we are together, advancing our own career goals, strengthening this University community, and bound together by common purpose of advancing Webster’s mission and vision.

It is always good to think about what we have been up to this summer, and what good news we have as a community. We know a number of people have been teaching this summer, writing grants, doing papers, leading study abroad activities. It has been a busy summer.

A number of us have been supporting or participating in the implementation teams. I sincerely thank all of you who are developing the specific ideas to strengthen Webster’s academic and financial position by managing costs, increasing efficiencies, and generating new revenue.

Of course, the news that truly reflects the quality of this community’s work—our academics and operations, our impact on our students and the broader community—was welcome indeed. This month, we received the official seal of approval from the Higher Learning Commission—reaffirmation of our accreditation of every program we offer worldwide, for a full 10 years. Congratulations. We worked hard, we deserved that result, and it truly is an achievement. I thank all of you.

Just two days ago we received word from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education that Webster, for the 27th consecutive year, ranks – not top five, not top three, but first among all U.S. non-profit institutions in awarding master’s degrees to African-American students. Also at the national level, we rank second among non-profits in awarding master’s degrees to African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. In Missouri, we are first in these categories.

That speaks to who we think we are, and the audience that we are best to serve. And I applaud you for that success. Because for these students, it does not happen alone. We are part of their success story.

Also, after last year’s record-breaking incoming freshman class at the Webster Groves campus, we have good news again. Many are moving on to campus this morning, on a beautiful day: we are expecting the third-largest incoming undergraduate class in Webster history. 494 freshmen. 249 transfer students. Housing is at full capacity.

It is a strong, diverse class with 149 of those nearly 500 freshmen being 1st-generation students, and 128 identifying as minorities. They have a stronger ACT average and average high school GPA, too. We have an all-time high of 14 presidential scholars, from six different states.

But we must recognize, don’t we, that the students coming to us this fall are arriving at a difficult time.

This summer has given us story after story of how challenging the world is: natural disasters, more shootings, almost daily charges of corruption and collusion, heart-wrenching scenes of families separated, and egregious examples of individual and collective conduct that erode our trust in individuals and institutions, perhaps in the very principles we hold dear.

As I consider the world we and our students inhabit—the world that impacts us and that we seek to impact—I want to say how grateful I am to be part of a university community that through our identities, our mission, our geography, our programs, and our students makes the statement that our place is in the world. 

Because we choose to engage the world, and embrace the world, and place learning in that world, we can anticipate that this coming academic year is going to be stressful, for us, and particularly for our students.

So my thoughts turn to how are we going to help our students, how are going to help them navigate the world. I began to think about the real inadequacies in higher ed in describing the work we do and the results we seek.

Some of that is driven by external forces—those who want to know how we prepare students for “gainful employment” or as I was so touchingly asked by a member of Congress, “What exactly is the bang for the buck for a Webster degree?”

This is hardly a student-centered focus way of thinking about how we serve students like the ones we heard from in the video.

We ourselves, with the best intentions, use higher education jargon as a shorthand for what we try to do to help our students. “Retention” as a shorthand label for our investment, our strategic initiatives, our metrics, our concern for our students—frankly, we use this term as a shorthand for our genuine and individual concern for our students. This term falls short.

Who are we? Why are we here?  We have historically said, to meet an unmet need. To meet students where they are. Let’s then ask ourselves what is it our students need. How do they describe what they need?

I don’t think there is a single Webster student who is saying, “Boy, I sure hope I’m retained this year.”

But we know what they said. We heard them talk about it in the video.

We helped them. . .  

  • Manage the transition to college, even when others told them “you can’t”
  • Overcome personal and family hardships to stay on track for their degree
  • Dream bigger, and open their eyes to their own potential
  • Meet the people, the places, and the opportunities that fulfill lifelong dreams

In Spring 2019, we will celebrate Webster University’s 100th commencement and likely award a degree to the 200,000th graduate. 

In terms of sheer numbers, we have graduated many. And we know that Webster meets student needs in unique ways that cause students to continue to choose Webster.

But we do know, don’t we, that there are too many students who begin college, including at Webster, who for a variety of reasons, do not experience success.

Looking nationally at undergraduates, more high school students are choosing to attend college, yet even fewer are staying. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 70% of high school graduates went directly to college in 2016 compared to only 63% in 2000. However, the percentage of those who return for a second year is falling. Including non-profits and for-profits, there are almost 3 million fewer college students than in 2011 when enrollment last peaked.

If we look at our own data about graduate students, we know that of the roughly 3700 new students who begin a master’s degree in given year, only less than half of them will complete that degree in a three-year time period

If we can assume that at the most fundamental level, a student who begins a degree program wishes to complete it, then what is not working?  We label this a “retention” or “persistence” problem, but that’s defining the problem from the institutional point of view. That isn’t looking at it from the individual student’s viewpoint.  Their needs and our success in meeting them are as individual as each student. 

Of course, our students’ individual journeys of dreams, challenges, barriers, and successes collectively roll them up, of course we get retention and graduation rates.  And we do have good news from such efforts.

But, if we are going to help all of our students this year to navigate the world and Webster, and to ground our work in what really matters, we will need to focus on each interaction with each student each day.  By doing that, by fulfilling the promise made to a student when we admitted them, they will naturally succeed, and all those metrics and rates will take care of themselves.

This summer at a memorial service for the emeritus faculty member Dr. Seena Kohl, I was struck by something her neighbor and good friend said, describing her life as having been lived: “with enthusiasm, curiosity and accomplishment.”

I think about the students I met as they moved in this morning. They have tremendous enthusiasm! Their curiosity naturally spurs learning. If we purposefully sustain their enthusiasm and nurture their curiosity, we will without question, also spark their accomplishment by feeding a desire to know more, to do more, to lead more.

So at Webster I want us to think deeply and often this year: What is working for our students? Where can we do better?

I believe it all starts with the places where we are very good, and that is in delivering personal attention. Ensuring a personally rewarding experience for each student.

We know, we all talk about, how Webster has “small class sizes.” It’s true. But again, that’s a bit of higher ed baseball. It’s just a number and a label and a gross understatement about the many ways that students receive our personal attention. It limits how personal that attention is, instead of expanding it. I really believe that through every interaction you, with every faculty or staff member, with Julian and I… every service you provide, every outside of the classroom activity you lead, every event your participate in, every e-mail and phone call, you and I build the relationships that fuel enthusiasm, curiosity, accomplishment.

Of course, every relationship has moments of challenge and stress. As our students deal with setbacks and failures, they build their resilience. And we find joy in their grit and determination.

The video gave us vivid examples. We say in our core values, that we put students first. This year, I suggest that we focus less on the plural and more on the singular. I put each student first. You put every student first.

For each student, how can that student’s mission be my mission? 

I am reminded of something Josh Tyler said at a leadership event this summer. Josh was a Suggs scholar and offered wonderful words of inspiration at the commencement ceremony in May. This summer I heard him talk about words of advice from his mother, when his dream of going to college seemed impossible.  She said, “The world distributes talent equally, but not opportunity.”

But for Webster.  But for the Suggs Scholarship, but for you, Josh’s talent would have missed the opportunity for a college degree. Fortunately, for Josh and for us, his college dream was realized, and we are all the better for it.

We, here at Webster, are providers of opportunity. Our students bring talent, drive, and dreams. It is up to us, through scholarships, mentoring, teaching, advising, student life, career advice, alumni support, and everything else we do, to reward their talent, with the opportunity we uniquely provide.

The students in the video that played as we began today spoke to such personal experiences with Webster. And no doubt you have experienced some in your own interactions with students. Before I hand off to Julian, I invite all of us to reflect, and take a few minutes here to share an example with your neighbors around you.

 Go ahead, think back to a pivotal point you’ve had in a student’s path to success. Think about who these students are, what they need from us, and take a moment to share with those sitting around you. Then we will continue with today’s program and Provost, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Julian Schuster.

[Five-minute discussion among audience]


Provost, Senior Vice President, Chief Operating Officer

Thank you, Beth, for those thoughts and perspectives. This is a perspective that we often forget. We often find reasons why we are here, but they can somehow become murky in our everyday routine. Not that we do not think about these individual students; but we may overlook the intensity with which this individual needs our help, our guidance, our mentorship.

Coming together for moments like this is what a university is all about.

As Beth mentioned, earlier this month we shared the good news of reaffirmation of Webster’s accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission.

This accreditation, which we have maintained continuously since 1925, is of course an essential ingredient to Webster’s success. But I want to take a moment to highlight what the peer review team found when they visited and reviewed Webster. Many of the key points that earned praise are thanks to the dedicated, collaborative work of this community to improve our quality and our service to students.

They also affirm many of our pioneer initiatives under the strategic plan, including the comprehensive program review that we began in 2012-13.

Many of you involved with accreditation or who have been at Webster since the last comprehensive review in 2008 know that assessment was cited as an area of concern for Webster and other institutions. I’m happy to report we addressed this area well and the accreditors found our assessment program “well directed.”

But as Beth noted, the ultimate purpose of doing this work is not simply to meet accreditors’ expectations. Rather, it is to meet the expectations and needs of our students.

And that is why several other areas the peer review team highlighted reflect well on our community. They praised the “robust structure” supporting faculty in grant-seeking and grant management, which leads to better opportunities and high-impact learning experiences for our students. They cited the “strength and cohesiveness” of the Global Citizenship Program (GCP) and its comprehensive assessment report. And they took note of the multiple opportunities provided for students to become global citizens as described in our mission, and the “robust variety of student support services” we offer to our diverse, multi-campus student body.

We saw the real-life impact of this work in the video today. Olivia shared how faculty and staff helped her attain a global experience. Planning study abroad in multiple locations “was overwhelming,” she said. “This isn’t something I could do alone.” But resources across Webster, in multiple schools and departments, helped her overcome personal challenges.

So many of these students told us of the faculty members and staff who inspired them. To quote Zach, the outreach from so many individuals at Webster is what makes him say, “I feel at home here.”

So, colleagues, as we work to continually improve the experience and outcomes of our students, then, let us take note of some of the on-going work that is doing exactly that.

A major area of progress in personalization is, ironically, a software platform. I’m speaking of the Student Success Portal, powered by Starfish. One year after its launch, we can attest to how it is strengthening the connection between students and the various services and people they encounter at Webster. As one faculty member said, “the Success Portal makes it so much harder for a student to ‘fall through the cracks.’”

Every month we add more capabilities – and hear more testimonials from students and advisors – affirming the value and capacity of this tool. Faculty and advisors become aware of potential issues with students before they become challenges. Faculty and advisors connect with each other and with students to expand their potential. Referrals have been made to support offices like Academic Advising, Academic Counseling, ADA, Career Planning and Development, Counseling, Financial Aid, Library, Tutoring, and Writing. Students get the help they need, sometimes help they didn’t realize was possible.

And of course, students also receive praise and “kudos” through the portal. Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement.

As we saw from the students in today’s video, the support of these offices is absolutely essential. I lost track of the number of faculty members and offices that the students mentioned, but they are all engaged in this process and they are learning more about our students’ needs.

Soon Starfish’s Predictive Analytics Reporting module will be available, allowing for even better, smarter tracking and intervention. We will learn more about our students from this data, and in turn we will better know how to serve them in the best ways.

The Retention and Graduation Committee has been tracking these Success Portal achievements, while also making progress on several more important initiatives, for example:

  • Couse Sequence Degree Plans
  • Reducing holds and barriers to registration
  • Adding a waitlist option in course registration
  • Aligning efforts to reach not-yet registered students

And in their upcoming plans they will investigate:

  • First Year Seminar outcomes
  • Making it harder for students to simply self-withdraw so that they can do so under guidance of advising to better understand the impact it could have on their academic experience
  • Exploring other barriers to registration

Thank you to everyone working on these initiatives.

And let me underline that thanks: Colleagues, as we continue to work toward modernizing Webster’s budget to a more sustainable model for these times, it is absolutely critical that we continue tending to these operational areas that improve the student experience. For their sake, and also for our own sake – so that the word of mouth they share with future prospective students is that we deliver, from the moment of recruitment to the moment of graduation, an outstanding, student-supporting, success-generating educational experience.

On that note, I will provide some updates on what the implementation teams have been working on this summer and how that is addressing our goals…

  • The Software Cost Reductions team found considerable savings through Office 365 migration, the software platform that supports Connections, the migration of the CX server, product and license subscriptions and other areas.
  • The Library Subscription Reduction team continues to identify cost savings.
  • The committee investigating domestic campus leases has identified and in some cases already completed extended campus relocations to better sites that reduce our costs and better serve our students.
  • In the academic space, the Course Scheduling Efficiency team has been meeting through the summer to document and inform ourselves on this and its connection to enrollment. A workshop for department chairs and associates will take place next month.
  • Look for the Course and Program Duplication team to reach out to department chairs with surveys to find areas of overlap not already identified by the team.
  • Other teams meeting through the summer include the teams on Small Program Sustainability and New For-Credit Academic programs,

We will continue to report progress and share updates on the steering committee portal accessible to faculty and staff in WorldClassRoom.

Whether budgetary or operational, these tasks may sound ordinary or far from the point of student contact. But in fact, they provide the very foundation for this student-centered institution to keep improving and progressing. As we saw in the video to open this afternoon, these initiatives to improve student services truly make a difference in their lives.

Think of how many initiatives these students said were critical to their success. Learning Community, Reeg Academic Resource Center, Study Abroad, Financial Aid, ESL, Transitions and more… And now think of how many of these areas have been developed, honed, and refined through the collaborative work of our community.

I think of what Lisa Camp said. She is an alumna who earned her bachelor’s and is now pursuing her MBA at Webster. She spoke to the impact individual faculty and staff had on her: “I was a completely different person when I came to Webster. I wouldn’t have called myself a leader. Now,” she said, “…I am a leader.”

It is important that she feels this, that she feels empowered. She is not just empowered by herself. It wasn’t something that came magically in the night. It is something that developed hand in hand through her work and interaction with all of you.

Colleagues, these are the outcomes. When we focus on improving the sustainability of our operations and the quality of these services, we have a profound impact on more of our students. And we ensure that each new student who joins us gets the best possible educational experience. Thank you.


Related Readings

“How To Get The Most Out of College”

Frank Bruni, The New York Times, Aug. 17, 2018



“3 Phrases That Discourage Students”

Education Advisory Board (EAB) Daily Briefing, July 12, 2018



“5 Inspiring Messages Every Student Needs to Hear Today”

Education Advisory Board (EAB) Daily Briefing, November 28, 2017



“What success means to your students, in their own words”

Education Advisory Board (EAB) Daily Briefing, Feb. 18, 2017


Transcript of Remarks