Inauguration Address | Webster University

Inauguration Address

Installation Ceremony
Powell Symphony Hall
September 25, 2010

It’s now my honor, as Webster’s president, to welcome and thank all of you for being here today.

Thank-you, Mark, and members of the Webster University Board of Trustees, for the opportunity to lead and to serve an exceptional university. I am grateful to the members of the Webster University community: students, faculty, staff, and administrators present today from all 108 locations in the Webster worldwide network.   

With real joy, I thank you, Webster alumni, for your ongoing support and commitment to the university we now share. 

Webster University and I are joined by a number of special guests.  Mayor Welch, thank-you for welcoming me so warmly today as you have during the past year. Thank-you, President Proenza—from whom I learned so much during incredibly dynamic times at The University of Akron, and President Golden—we both moved here from the University of Louisville—I just made a 9 year stop at Akron first.   

Welcome, presidential colleagues from the St. Louis region, and delegates representing sixty colleges and universities. These include our nearby neighbor, Dr. David Greenhaw of Eden Theological Seminary and international guests  Professor Zheng Chengjun, Vice President for Human Resources from our Confucius Institute partner, Beijing Language and Culture University,  Dr. Liu Qiang,

Deputy Director for the  Confucius Institute at Webster University, and Dr. Judith Ackroyd, Dean of Humanities, Arts & Sciences, from our partner institution, Regent’s College in London—you honor us with your presence.  

I am particularly happy to welcome and thank my friends and former colleagues from the University of Akron, the University of Louisville, and Northern Arizona University.   And from Vandalia, Illinois, where I began my career as a high school teacher, I am very happy to see former students, teaching colleagues, friends and family.  

Finally and especially, my husband Paul and the dear family and friends who have traveled from across the United States for this day.  For Webster and for me, today is an extended family reunion.

Ironically, a colleague warned me about a week ago, that after today, my appointment would be official, and I could no longer step away.  I laughed because I have, in fact, been on the job since July 1st, 2009.   

So, why schedule inauguration activities now?  Because we wanted to create an opportunity to celebrate Webster University in all its diversity—coinciding with Homecoming, Parents’ Weekend, and the Worldwide Directors Meeting.  Today’s event is about the past, present, and future of Webster University much more than it is about the 11th president who feels privileged to lead and serve this dynamic community.

My thoughts today turn to the question of identity—identifying who and what Webster University is, what defines us as a university community, and what values and aspirations will guide us to create the Webster we seek to become.   

That fundamental question—“who are you”—is one of the first we learn when we are young, whether asked as “Who are you,” “Wie heissen Sie”,  “Quien eres tu” or Ni Sur Say, as we mature, we understand that the question of who we are extends far beyond our formal given or adopted names. 

We gain appreciation for the value of a good name, one that represents us with accuracy and integrity.  And we increasingly gain identities from our associations with family members, friends, and institutions.    Just two weeks ago at the St. Louis Art Fair, a young man approached me with an eager expression, extended his hand, and asked, “Aren’t you that Webster woman?”   

What is in a name?  It is our most prized possession, something we protect and nurture through our character, our heart and our soul.  I am proud to say yes, I am that Webster woman, because the name of Webster is one I prize.

What is in the name Webster, and how did our founders and their successors respond to the “who are you” question to define Webster as we know it?

Those of us who know the history well or have just had the opportunity to review the narrative in today’s program know that our identity has evolved over the past 100 years.

As Loretto College, we were first a college for Catholic women west of the Mississippi, one of the first to reach a population not commonly served in 1915.  From that beginning, the founding Sisters of Loretto soon answered a question that became fundamental to our identity—shall we admit international students?  

The answer was yes, and in 1919, four students arrived from France.  And those four were followed by the launch of the first international student program with the intention to add many international students to the Webster Groves campus. In 1924, the college adopted a new name from its beautiful location, Webster College, to avoid a mistaken identity with Loretto Academy.

In increasingly more inclusive ways, Webster embraced diverse students at the Webster Groves campus, welcoming the first two male students in 1962, the first of many. In a decision that re-cast our future in ways that were both dramatic and necessary, Webster’s identity shifted in 1967 from Catholic to independent and non-denominational as the Sisters of Loretto transferred Webster’s ownership to a lay board. 

And from there our community continued to broaden to include individuals seeking master’s degrees, working adults here in St. Louis and in metropolitan and corporate locations across the U.S., as well as doctoral students.

We responded to the needs of military personnel and international students seeking an American-style education at Webster campuses in Europe and Asia.  

Increasingly, a Webster student may also know us best through our exemplary online teaching and learning environment or through traveling with cohort groups of students learning and studying at multiple Webster locations. 

Who is Webster now and who are we?  

From those first eight Sisters of Loretto teaching a class for five students, we are now:

3,048 faculty and staff in 108 locations in the U. S., Europe, and Asia, teaching over 20,000 students representing 123 countries, with 3700 of those students taking at least one course online this fall semester.  Our 147,400 living alums include 1100 Chinese residents, 129 students who have participated in the global MA and MBA programs, and 25,000 military, including 280 generals, admirals, and commanders.

We have come a long way.

We were formed by a progressive, committed, inclusive and entrepreneurial community of educators.  And while our demographics have changed over time, the values and commitments of those who preceded us have endured to mark us as those who care, who respond, who innovate, who lead.

Throughout our history, this university community has enjoyed posing fundamental questions of identity and relationship—who should the university serve and which unmet needs can we best fulfill?  

Now, we of Webster stand at another defining, or as a writer quipped this past week, a “divining” moment.   All of us in higher education stand at a time of needed critical re-definition. We must re-invent our institutions for relevance, responsiveness, sustainability, and significance. What is singular for Webster and truly our unique advantage is that we thrive in such times.  We are compelled as a creative, caring community to take action for the benefit of the worlds we serve.

We know that everywhere students struggle with issues of time and money to seize the opportunity for post-secondary education. Families’ resources are increasingly limited, state and federal support strained, and post-graduation employment opportunities challenged.  At the same time, the need has never been greater for the kind of transformative opportunities that higher education can provide. 

While we necessarily focus on issues of access and preparation, we also affirm the world’s need for educated individuals who, through their knowledge and experience, create a richer understanding of the diversity that ties us globally one to another.

Long before others embraced inclusion—whether it be a co-ed campus, welcoming of international students, outreach to working adults, adding extended campus sites, founding of international campuses, creating fully online programs, or serving the military, Webster was there.  During past times of social and economic challenge for the world and for Webster’s students, members of this community always faced the challenges with a creative energy.  

They enabled our mission to evolve and for us to maintain our relevance and vibrancy. And with that evolving mission came new ways of naming ourselves along with broader and more diverse answers to the question—who are we?

Webster has always understood in an intuitive and purposeful way—that being clear about one’s mission is the surest foundation for a community’s success.

As renowned soprano Barbara Cook put it,

 “If you're able to be yourself, then you have no competition. All you have to do is get closer and closer to that essence.”

In this first year, I have had opportunity to interact with many members of the Webster University community—in St. Louis, across the U. S., in Europe, and Asia—as well as with Webster’s strong and valued partners right on our Webster Groves campus, in this region, and at sites including London and China.  From these conversations, I have begun to discern Webster’s essence.

I maintain that we of Webster must realize that essence in the times we now face and the future we plan. 

With conviction we affirm a bold vision —that we will set a distinct standard for global education.  And we are uniquely poised to act on that affirmation of an essence that has been present with us from the beginning—not only in terms of history and geography but in terms of curriculum, campus activities, demographics, collaborations, infrastructure, policies and practices. 

Webster is currently engaged in rich conversation and self-examination regarding the kind of learning experiences that will, in the words of our mission, transform our students for individual excellence and global citizenship.

And Webster, true to form, is wrestling with the creative tensions and balance among the issues that compete for our priority and attention.

We raise questions about the relationships between liberal learning and professional preparation and consider how a distinct global standard would impact both.  We consider what is meant by preparing every student as a global citizen—including our online students and the working adults who value a Webster degree for its practical orientation and student friendly features.  

We seek to bring coherence and unity to functions such as communications, marketing, and institutional effectiveness studies without sacrificing the entrepreneurial spirit present in our distributed network of campus locations.  How can a global standard infuse every academic program and campus life in the many forms it takes?  What new programs would provide the best signature for our vision and mission?

 We ask ourselves questions about our own capacity to be citizens of the globe at the same time we ask those questions of our students. And we seek many strategic partners with whom our vision will be more successfully reached.

This self-reflection and re-invention effort is not for the faint of heart.  And in Webster University’s case, the answers to these questions do not reside in St. Louis alone.  As I have learned, the heart of Webster and its brainpower is widely distributed.  And for that reason, Webster requires and will explore the most robust of technologies to enable our communications across the boundaries of time and space.

So, what’s a university to do as it seeks to know itself, discern its essence and purpose, and be its best self in a dynamic global context?  And how can the 11th president most effectively lead the next defining conversation in ways worthy of her predecessors?

I am reminded of what Sharon D. Welch, Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard Theological School, says about such circumstances,

“What may we hope? Can we hope actually to live out our dreams of the good, our dreams of justice and social transformation?”

Her answer forms a foundation for the life of service and leadership to which I aspire:  “What may we hope?  Rather than a hope for eventual victory, for a world without injustice or serious conflict, I describe the power of having a more modest hope, a hope for resilience, a hope for company along the way.”  

Welch goes on to say, “We may hope for resilience and company.  We have hope for endurance, for companionship, for being able to respect and celebrate life in the company of friends and colleagues.  We may also hope for a matrix for responding to challenges, not a means of resolving them once and for all.” 

Webster University colleagues and partners—locally and globally— it is time for us to embrace with hope, with endurance, and with resilience, a cosmopolitan response to the question—who we are.  We are uniquely called to at once transform ourselves and to transform the world.  When so many aspects of identity can and are used to divide rather than unify—we of World Wide Webster are called to embrace the most inclusive identity of all—a cosmopolitan identity and global citizenship.   

Our hope is more than modest because it is a hope borne of the joy, persistence, and endurance that has characterized us since our beginnings in 1915. 

Our vision is inclusive, our spirit hopeful, and our history of accomplishment unparalleled.  By being true to ourselves, we will together lead a vision of global academic excellence.   Worlds of need await us, and for that reason, I am proud to say that: