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

Fall Convocation 2016: We Are All Webster

Building community from many identities, owning our biases, and choosing inclusion as we become more diverse

During the Fall Convocation 2016 address to the worldwide Webster University community, President Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble spoke of the ways in which embracing our identities, recognizing our biases, and choosing to be inclusive can strengthen a unified resolve to provide Webster University students in every part of the globe with a transformative and highly impactful educational experience.

Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016
Loretto-Hilton Center, Webster University, Webster Groves Campus

President Stroble speaks at Fall Convocation 2016Good afternoon, everyone! It’s good to see all of you here today. It is great to know we have many colleagues watching by video from throughout the Webster community around the world. 

I want to talk about our sense of community today – the many parts and perspectives - the ties that bind this community, how they affect our individual and collective identies, how our biases – good and bad – compel action, and what our sense of ourselves as Webster means for Webster University’s mission. 

But first I would like to play a short greeting from someone you normally see on stage with me for this kickoff to our academic year. Julian Schuster, our provost, senior vice president and chief operating officer. I’ll let him explain…

[Video greeting from Schuster played]

Thank you Julian.

As members of the Webster University community, we have experienced moments of tremendous joy and celebration in the past year. Each of us no doubt can recall moments when we experienced satisfaction in our jobs—alone or in teams with others—to meet a need on the part of our students, our colleagues, our community.  

As a university community, those moments reach a crescendo when we come together to celebrate Commencement not only here at The Muny but at campus locations across the United States and internationally. Over the summer, members of Administrative Council and Provost’s Council have been intentional about attending as many commencements as possible.  

What we can say with confidence is that graduates of Webster programs everywhere—in Washington, D.C., in Little Rock, in Denver, in Louisville, in Geneva, in Accra, in San Antonio, in Bangkok and Shanghai are proud of what they have accomplished and are grateful to the faculty and staff who supported them along the way. We should take pride in that, and I thank you and celebrate you for your success in advancing Webster’s tradition of meeting unmet needs—here and everywhere that Webster students make their home.

At the same time, we have experienced moments of tremendous disappointment, heartbreak, and horror as we saw first-hand in our communities the bias, the conflicts, the discrimination, and indeed terror leading to diminished opportunity, deprived futures, and tragic loss of life. We often experience a feeling of being helpless to make things better, and we are often angry. 

As members of the Webster University community, we make our homes in communities around the world. Recent tragic global events have local impact and cause us to reflect on the timeless question of “who is my neighbor?” At the time of the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, this summer I wrote a brief message on this topic to members of our community, which you can find on the front page of our website.  

I repeat these words:

Our focus on global citizenship--on developing a global mindset--should open us to be changed by the world at the same time we become world changers. Once we accept that we are all connected, we can then work together for a solution, with a belief that tolerance and understanding can prevail over violence and hatred.

Since then, we have come to associate more and more place names—St. Paul, Nice, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Munich, Istanbul, Tokyo, Hua Hin, Milwaukee—with loss of life, pain, and sorrow. The emotions associated with the name “Ferguson” are present with us today, and are now and forever joined with the names of so many others. I recall Judge Jimmie Edwards declaring at the Webster Staff Alliance professional development day, “We are all Ferguson.”  

To make that statement is to commit to a shared identity, a shared heritage, and a shared future. Saying “We are all Ferguson” embraces and expresses community and kinship.  

The evocative memory of place is an experience many of us have—for the places of our birth, or where we spent our childhoods, for a favorite vacation spot, for a place where significant life events occurred. Haven’t we all interacted with Webster students who were transformed through their interaction with a new place which nurtured their empathy for others?  That is why it is necessary, in my opinion, for us to engage with others whose lived experiences are not our own—to grow in our connection with the human community and to act in ways that surpass self.   

What implications, then, does it have for us to say “We are all Orlando” or “We are all Nice” or “We are all Hua Hin”? Just as the question of “Who is my neighbor?” is one that compels me, recent events have prompted many more questions for me.

As my thinking is progressing, I want to share some observations today that I am forming about several pairs of concepts: community and identity; diversity and inclusion; stigma and bias. While some of these observations are mine, others we will hear today come from our Webster colleagues.

Community and Identity

To bring this close to Webster Groves, I want to highlight an important conversation launched in our local community by Webster Rock Hill Ministries and KWRH-LP Radio Station 92.9 FM, also called Radio 63119. Several of us at Webster attended and participated in the July 23rd 63119 Community United Forum to discuss the barriers and the ways forward to achieve a more inclusive community. 

Almost instantly, the question of “Who is my neighbor?” was raised by one of the conveners. We met in small groups to develop queries around this question. More than one small group asked what the organizers and each of us meant by the word, “community.”  

In my small group, citizens reflected that their identities and that of their family members were not always welcome here. A single woman, a parent of a bi-racial child, a father, and several members of families not native to Webster Groves shared similar experiences. One member of our group volunteered that the lack of inclusion and the desire to feel valued and welcomed caused people to choose to exclude themselves from the larger community and to isolate themselves with small kinship and family groups of those most like them. 

Who is our community? Is it our neighborhood, is it Webster Groves, is it 63119, is it St. Louis? All these questions were in the air. Two Webster faculty members moderated the small groups and reported out. Dr. Basiyr Rodney concluded that “there are deep pockets of divide.” Dr. Eric Rhiney extended the questions about community to ask, “Who is the us and who is the them?” 

I am wondering if is possible for many identities to feel welcomed and valued in ways that form and build community. Can diversity truly be the strength of a community? Or can true community only be found with those most like ourselves? What makes us “other” to each other? If, as a moderator at the forum advanced, everyone has privileges and everyone has biases, what does it mean to be a neighbor?

The conversations begun at this community forum will continue in partnership with the Alliance for Interracial Dignity. I attended their meeting last night and invite all who live here locally to join us for upcoming meetings. On a related note, I am pleased to let you know that Assistant Principal John Thomas from Webster Groves High School has reached out to me, inviting us to collaborate in ways that help all of us equip our students to navigate this community and world of “deep divides.” I welcome your participation in what promises to be an important partnership.

Diversity and Inclusion

At last January’s convocation, Julian Schuster, Nicole Roach, and I spoke about the topics of diversity and inclusion and how Webster was organizing a two-day forum called: Critical Conversations: Embracing Diversity and Inclusion.  

Over 350 individuals joined in those two days of conversations—from the campus and the region.  Feedback from a follow-up survey was informative and has guided the process we will use to prepare for the upcoming forum in March 2017.   Participants valued engaging with colleagues, urged us to continue having these hard conversations, and noted that we are still learning.

From Webster’s inception, we have been an institution that opened worlds that were previously closed to students. Our student body has become increasingly diverse in every way. We are a microcosm of the world across the Webster campus network and within each campus. 

Yet, as Deborah Gillis, CEO of Catalyst declares: “Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.” 

Again I wonder about Webster. While we have become intentionally and, in fact, more diverse, have we chosen to be more inclusive? 

Our new strategic plan commits us to developing globally inclusive leadership—meaning students, staff, faculty, alumni, all of us. The choice to include and the choice to lead in globally inclusive ways rests with each of us and with each of our students. 

Inclusion is everyone’s work.

How can we make progress on this continuous path to equity? We can build on the knowledge we already hold, seeking to learn from and with each other. We can join with our neighbors to address the most pressing concerns from humanitarian and environmental perspectives. 

Last year we made several commitments to make progress in areas of concern members of our campus community identified for us.

The working groups we formed then have made progress in fulfilling their charge to address specific issues in these areas. 

Curriculum possibilities for LGBTQ courses and pograms are moving to the Curriculum Committee this fall, and program development is also underway for Afro-American studies. Data have been gathered and benchmarked about our employee hiring and policies. And we have learned more about funding for students by race/ethnicity and for student organizations. Attention will now turn to accessibility and space needs. More information about the progress of the Working Groups will be posted on our website, and we look forward to their recommendations in December of this year.

Because this work cannot be accomplished without leadership by members of our community, I  want to thank all of the members of these working groups for the progress they’ve made. Dani MacCartney, who co-chaired one of the working groups, is on leave this fall, and I am glad others will pick up the work and carry it forward.  To all who have embraced the work of inclusion, I thank you.

For a moment I want to highlight the role of the First Year Experience Advisory Committee in assisting all of us with our learning about each other and with each other. Last year, The First Year Experience team took an important step in focusing common readings on the topics of race, class, and social justice. This year, these readings will be posted online along with readings in use by each First Year Experience faculty member. Carol Williams and her First Year Experience advisory committee will help to make these readings available online to all of us and to assist me in inviting faculty and staff to participate in Critical Conversation Reading Groups, which can also tap the Crossing Borders resources made available to us by Bethany Keller and her colleagues. 

Stigma and Bias

It is in part because of our lack of knowing each other and having relationships with each other that we fall into the traps of using labels as cognitive shortcuts to convey generalizations—often devaluing onesabout groups of individuals. We can see that every day in public discourse, whether it is the kind of labeling used in political debate or media accounts. These labels, based on a small amount of information sometimes with questionable validity, convey assumptions and values that limit our ability to know the complexity of individuals and groups.  

As I have read more about stigma and bias, I am more aware of how destructive it can be in surprising ways. For example, the assumption which many hold, that lung cancer is the exclusive disease of smokerswhich is not truecan limit investment in research to treat lung cancer because along with that assumption is a bias against researching treatments for supposed self-inflicted disease. Can’t we all recall the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS which delayed necessary resolve to arrest an epidemic through effective treatment?

In fact, as I am learning in my conversations with UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Richard Gant and his colleagues, the goal of ending infections, deaths, and discrimination due to HIV/AIDS by 2030 is seriously in jeopardy. As a domestic and global campaign is launched to rekindle awareness and education among new generations here in Missouri and particularly in Africa, we at Webster may well have a role to play. If you wish to join me in learning more, I welcome your interest.

I have been talking with many of you about the topic of bias—particularly those implicit biases that have been so much a topic of concern. And it occurs to me that bias can take on positive dimensions when we make the unconscious conscious.  As Kristi Lenz in IT suggests, in place of unconscious biases we should have conscious biases. I propose, then, that we should identify for ourselves the biases that are most productive in our personalities, name and claim them, and advance them at every opportunity.

When I was interviewing here more than seven years ago now, I perceived that this university was biased toward a global mindset. I responded to many questions about my experiences abroad and with a globally diverse student body. I was asked to describe my ideas for how to capitalize on Webster’s global focus. It was my belief that the four core values in the strategic plan developed by this university community reflected Webster’s biases: students, learning, diversity, and global citizenship.   

That belief is confirmed again and again as I interact with Webster colleagues. An impassioned Erin Bullerdieck, speaking to students and their families in the Transitions program for conditionally admitted students, said, “It matters to me personally that each of you succeeds.” It is that kind of spirit—that bias for students’ success-- that has resulted in the retention rates for these conditionally admitted Transitions students to now surpass that of fully admitted students at Webster—an accomplishment that is without peer in my experience.

I can name several of my biases—which those of you who know me well will recognize:

I am biased for working a plan, for getting things done.

I am biased toward a belief that we cannot take time for granted and that the need to address any challenge is urgent.

I am biased in favor of engaging the world rather than hiding from it—a bias affirmed and confirmed by my time at Webster.

I am for Webster, all of Webster, first and foremost.  

It is my bias that the answer to the question “who is my neighbor” must be a global one as well as a local one, if we are educating ourselves and our students in ways true to our mission and true to the outcomes our students tell us they desire.  We must connect our work to the work of the world. 

The shortcuts present when limiting and negative assumptions are made about individuals’ and groups’ gender, race, age, religion, place of birth, ability and disability are with us daily. And they result not only in disparate treatment and different opportunities—they can and do result in outright disparagement and even death. Without regard for individuals, “wearing the uniform,” is enough to create victims. And the uniform takes many forms—one’s race, one’s religion, one’s class, one’s career. 

While this is the case in the sphere of the traditional concerns of diversity and inclusion, I find it everywhere. Think about the meanings and generalizations we attach to these labels: faculty, staff, student, full-time, part-time, adjunct, administration, first generation, commuter student, transfer, American, immigrant, refugee, liberal, conservative, and so on and so on. 

We Are All Webster

That is why it is so important for us to interact with each other in ways that make our knowledge of each other extend beyond the easy shorthand labels.

The limitation of what we know in turn limits our ability to succeed at Webster and to collectively succeed as Webster.

One of the many commentaries I have read about Brexit used a Kipling quote to express this idea. Now certainly Kipling’s notion of global citizenship was an imperial one with Great Britain at the center, but the question he posed as a world traveler is one worthy of our consideration. 

He asked, in his 1891 poem, The English Flag: “What should they know of England who only England know?”

John Lanchester, unpacking the Brexit vote, posed a similar question: “What do they know of the UK who only London know?” as a way of analyzing the divergent patterns of thoughts/votes across the UK in this recent initiative.  

In other words, Londoners are not representative of the entirety of UK sentiment. 

We could ask similar questions of ourselves:

  • What do we know of Webster who only Webster Groves know?
  • What do we know of Webster who only Fort Leavenworth know?
  • …or Chengdu know?
  • …or Irvine know?
  • …or our online community know?   

From the time I first arrived at Webster, I found that our lack of mobility limits our knowledge of Webster and like all shortcuts of knowledge, can lead to negative biases about the value of what we do not know and positive biases about the value of what we do know. That is, incidentally, why it is strategically important for more of us and more of our students to increase our mobility as a way to make our home in the world, whether the world of Webster or the broader world. 

But this is not only a geographic issue: What do we know of Webster who only our department know?  

  • ...or only our college?  
  • ...or only our unit? 
  • ...or only our building?  
  • ...or only our majors know?   

With greater intention to include, to build community, it is my belief that we will gain more knowledge of each other, greater respect for the diversity of our experiences, thoughts and perspectives.  

Our strategic plan, Global Impact for the Next Century, focuses on just such themes and activities—innovating through inclusive leadership, assuring the global mobility and diversity of our students and ourselves, designing student experiences for action-oriented learning, and strengthening our collaboration across disciplines and campus locations, to use a few examples. The benefits of a Webster education need to be inclusively excellent—transformative and highly impactful for all students. 

We will be better able to address the challenges facing Webster when we resist disrespect, devaluing, and disunity when what we most need to affirm is that we are all in this together. And we will need unity of purpose and resolve to seize opportunity where it exists and to meet challenges present with us. We are all Webster. 

We are all Webster.   

My bias and my intention for Webster is that we become more fully Webster—transforming ourselves and our students for individual excellence and global citizenship. 

We are all Webster.    

Have a great fall semester.


References and Related Reading

Burrell, Lisa. “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity.” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2016.

DiAngelo, Robin. “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.” The Good Men Project, April 9, 2015.

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little and Brown, 2013.

Gluade, Eddie, and Langston Glaude. “Letters: A black father and his son.” Time, July 25, 2016, p. 31.

Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Viking Press, 2016.

Gundling, Ernest, Christie Caldwell and Karen Cvitkovich. Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts. Wiley, 2015.

Kerr, Douglas. “Orwell, Kipling, and Empire.”

Kipling, Rudyard. “The English Flag.” 1891.

Lanchester, John.“Brexit Blues.” London Review of Books, July 28, 2016 volume 38, number 15, pp 1-11.

Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Saletan, William. “Not by the Color of Their Uniform: An Unlikely Parable about Racism.” Slate, July 14, 2016.

Higher Education Reports and Special Issues:

“The Equity Imperative.” Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures, publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Winter 2016.

“Expanding Access and Opportunity: How Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges Serve First-Generation and Low-Income Students.” Report by The Council of Independent Colleges, March 2015.

“Global Learning for All.” Liberal Education, publication of Association of American Colleges and Universities, Summer 2015.

“Independent Colleges and Student Engagement: Descriptive Analysis by Institutional Type.” Robert M. Gonyea and Jillian Kinzie. Report for The Council of Independent Colleges, June 2015.

“Liberal Education for an Inventive America: Fostering Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship.” Liberal Education, publication of Association of American Colleges and Universities, Spring 2016.

“Student Life: Best Practices for Tough Times.” The Presidency, The American Council on Education magazine for higher education leaders, Spring 2016.

“What Happens to Quality in an Age of Disruption?” Fall 2015/Winter 2016 issue of Liberal Education, publication of Association of American Colleges and Universities.