A Defining Moment | Webster University

A Defining Moment

Spring Convocation
January 13, 2010

In August, we gathered for Webster’s traditional fall convocation, and as you will recall, I focused my remarks that day on the power of story—as a way for you to learn more about me and my Webster story but more importantly for me to invite you to share your Webster stories as a way for me to learn about you and to build the Webster worldwide community.  Since that day, our website, mystory.Webster.edu has received 246 submissions of stories in word, photo, and video form.  I continue to invite your stories and urge you to read and respond to others’ stories—you’ll be inspired as you read what others say about Webster, but more importantly you’ll begin to gain a sense of the whole of Webster—across boundaries and people.

During my spring 2009 visits and full-time since July 1, I have been intentionally learning about Webster “from the inside out.”   I have been purposeful in focusing my time and attention on our home campus in Webster Groves, the St. Louis metro campuses, and attending educational, civic, and community events in the St. Louis region, with just one visit so far to an extended campus and one to an international campus.

When I applied for the presidency of this university, when I interacted with the search committee, and when I interviewed on campus, I was often asked to describe how I would “lead Webster to the next level.”  What I could glimpse about Webster last winter has become more clear to me now.

IT IS MY VIEW that Webster stands at a defining moment in its history—poised for an exceptionally bright and impactful future—dependent in large part on the wisdom of the decisions we will make.

Defining moments come in our lives and in the lives of institutions—sometimes we sense at the time that the decisions we must make or the choices before us represent very different futures and that the act of selecting either expands and creates or narrows and limits the opportunities before us.

It seems appropriate as we begin 2010 and the first year that I’ll spend completely as a member of the Webster University community to reflect on my “next level thinking” as of now—and to chart for us the defining work ahead.

What helps us in this defining moment is the work this community has already undertaken to define a mission, vision, and values as captured in the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan. I want to go on record today that as Webster’s president I embrace this plan.  I consider that I am here to help Webster achieve the Vision 2020 Plan, not to change it.

Here is how the Webster community has imagined we will define ourselves and that others will define our place in the 2020 future—just 10 years from now.   It is up to us together to not only decide what that means but how we’ll get there. I like this quotation by Kentucky novelist Barbara Kingsolver: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is to live inside that hope.” Our vision and mission statements describe what we hope for—now for the living inside that hope.

Our path to that vision must be marked by a consistent focus on our core values—in ways that make these concepts live in the times and places we of Webster inhabit.   Let’s take a quick tour through our history to see how those core values and the ways Webster has expressed them have evolved.

In 1915 –  Loretto College was founded.  We now have over 21,000 students in our student body across all of our campuses.

1919 - Two French students enrolled, marking the start of the College’s commitment to international education. Today, over 120 nationalities are represented in our student body.

In 1924 - Loretto College was renamed “Webster College” to distinguish it from Loretto Academy, a St. Louis high school for girls also sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto.  “Webster” was chosen because of the College’s location in the city of Webster Groves, Missouri.

1925 - Webster was first accredited by North Central on March 19, 1925 Webster University is currently accredited by The Higher Learning Commission  of the North Central Association. The accreditation includes undergraduate and graduate levels at all locations where the University offers programs.

1928 - Loretto Hall, a residence hall with space for 200 students and faculty members, was opened on September 20.  Today we house 72 5 residential students in 3 residence hall locations in the Webster Groves campus.

1931 - Webster initiated an international student program, bringing students from many different countries to campus.  From 1930 to 1950, nearly 200 faculty members and students went abroad or came to Webster, primarily from Asia, Europe, and South America. Our current study abroad participation far outpaces national norms.

1948 - Under the leadership of Sister Mariella, Webster admitted the first two African-American students in 1948. Since 1992, Diverse Magazine has identified the University as graduating more African-Americans with master’s degrees than any other non-profit institution. This is in large part due to our African-American military students studying across the United States and abroad.

1962 - The first male students were enrolled in the Fine Arts program. Several male students enrolled in the next four or five years and by 1969 the Webster Catalogue listed the college as co-educational.

In 1966 – We opened the first extended campus outside of the St. Louis area.  Webster College established an M.A.T. program in Kansas City. Today we have 109 campuses worldwide.

While many of the moments we have pinpointed in Webster’s history defined Webster as we now know it (founding by those pioneering women from Kentucky, admitting a diverse student body, serving needs outside St. Louis,  and growing the physical campus here in Webster Groves), —from this decision came one of the most significant transformations of the institution:

1967 The Sisters of Loretto transferred ownership of the College to a lay board of directors.

Webster has been a groundbreaking institution—including in our employment practices. In the 1970s, faculty led the initiative to create the Faculty Development Leave alternative to tenure. Today, 51% of Webster full-time faculty have chosen FDL status.

And Webster continued to evolve as a teaching institution—meeting increasingly diverse student needs for an education.

1974 - At the invitation of the U.S. Department of Defense, Webster College offered its programs for the first time at a military location, Ft. Sheridan, north of Chicago; Scott Air Force Base quickly followed. Today, Webster is one of the largest providers of graduate military education in the United States. Webster’s high ranking military alumni include 471 active duty generals, admirals and commanders.

1978 - In September, the first European campus opened in Geneva, Switzerland. Courses leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees were offered in English. Today we have 10 international campuses in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, Thailand, the Netherlands,  and Austria.

1983 - On Feb. 1, Webster College became Webster University to reflect the school’s dynamic evolution from a small women’s liberal arts college to a comprehensive, international university.  Many other higher education institutions followed Webster’s lead in becoming universities. 

1995 - Students, faculty, and staff participated in the first Webster Works Worldwide, a community volunteer day at each of Webster’s campuses, introducing a commitment to worldwide service to our communities with a strong student component. Over 1,000 volunteers donated 2,200 hours to their communities in 1995. After the 15th annual Webster Works Worldwide, 20,809 volunteers have logged over 91,000 hours of service.

1999 -  Webster offered its first six online classes, three MBA courses and three MAT courses. The first term total enrollment was 70 students. Today we have over 3,600 students enrolled in over 600 online courses. These students represent 48 states and 30 countries. We currently offer 19 graduate degree programs and 5 certificate programs online.

October 2007 - Webster University announced that former U.S. Ambassador George H. Walker III had bestowed upon the school a gift of $10 million, which is the single largest in Webster’s history. Ambassador Walker designated the gift to benefit the university’s School of Business and Technology.

Looking back at the exceptional history of an institution whose tradition is INNOVATION--the continual transformation of our reach and impact—provides inspiration for the roles we now play.

I am convinced that we should approach the decisions we will make with the same kind of pioneering spirit that characterized the Sisters as they struck out from Kentucky, and later Jacqueline Grennan in her bold visioning of Webster that took us far beyond those founding days as the first Catholic four year college for women west of the Mississippi.

We honor their example, fulfill their dreams, and extend Webster’s reach, regard, and impact for a new generation as we, too, are bold in our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

We now have a full calendar year ahead, a significant first year of the five before we celebrate Webster’s centennial and ten prior to the 2020 vision—a test of leadership to which I aspire: inclusive, transparent, accountable—for me and for us. 

We can look back to 1915, to 1967, to 1978, to 1999 as times when Webster defined the mission of fulfilling unmet needs in a new way that sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically set the institution on the path to the Webster we know today. 

In future years we know that the actions we take now, the plans we make, and the consequences of our choices will stand as the legacy we leave for future generations of Webster faculty, staff, students, alums—but ultimately will define Webster as they will know it.

The insights I have gained in the past few months and experience  in very diverse institutions and geographies and roles—help me look at Webster and the Vision 2020 plan and recognize the need for looking at the decisions we will make as simultaneously a test of our character and leadership and our ability to take a systems view of the many components of an increasingly complex university functioning in a fiercely competitive global environment.

Our leadership must be about results.


Our leadership must be about process.

We should not  trade-off  ends and means but instead aspire to build a community that brings prosperity for each of Webster’s members as a result of our shared commitment to a bold and worthy mission.

The integrity of our character will be found in matching word and deed, ends and means, process and outcomes as we of Webster worldwide pursue our goals.

Vision 2020 is comprised of a vision and mission, 6 large goals and many individual strategies.

What is missing, in my view, is a level of planning that will provide the glue and coherence, the systemic approach that will assure the integrity and sustainability of many admirable individual efforts undertaken in any specific year.

That is one of the contributions that presidential leadership can make—to ask the questions and to engage the community in identifying what is needed, to charge its development, and to celebrate and to provide support and resources, and for holding the members of the community accountable for completing the work needed to accomplish our mission and vision.

This pyramid is but one  way to communicate from a systems perspective the challenges and opportunities for Webster—several of these boxes could function as the foundation for the other—they are dynamic in their relationship. For today’s purposes, I’ll talk through the work that I see needs to be done from the bottom up, choosing infrastructure as the foundation for the other systemic elements.  The decision topics and the questions I’ll raise today are the result of teamwork by the members of the Administrative Council, and with feedback from our trustees and the deans as well as the Institutional Planning Committee.  For each of these boxes, it is my intention today to frame the questions I think we need to answer and to  describe the processes we will put into action to discern answers.

Any one of the boxes on this pyramid could merit its own presentation and discussion.  For that reason, I hope you will invite me to meetings of your college, department, unit, office, organization to give us more opportunity to discuss these in detail.

Infrastructure—comprised of:

Buildings, Property, Equipment, Technology, Funding

• How should we approach the updating and creation of a Webster Master Plan for the future?

• What technology do we need to serve our students, support our operations and continue to integrate into teaching and learning?

• What are our most pressing needs for future campaigns?

Webster’s strength as a community, its character as an institution, and the value we provide for each other and for our students are embodied in us--the people of Webster—faculty and staff.

• What are the most important investments Webster should make in employees to recruit, retain, and develop faculty and staff  personally and professionally?

• How do we develop career ladders and succession planning for leadership positions?

• How can we assure that the diversity of our employees is comparable to the diversity of our student body?

At the center of the pyramid we focus on our most fundamental purpose—to serve students’ educational needs—through our academic programs and through a variety of supporting services and programs to create high quality learning experiences that transform them for individual excellence and global citizenship.

• What will be distinctive about our academic programs in the future?

• What is the optimal enrollment mix and size for Webster University?

• How do we diversify our academic programs within the university network to anticipate the changing needs of students and the market?

• How do we build a deeper connection between Webster online and extended site students?

• What metrics will be critical for assessing academic programs, market demand, student success, financial performance, and student services?

These next two boxes recognize the benefits that can be created for us and for our partners by careful and strategic attention to existing and new partnerships.

• How can we foster advisory board relationships to become more engaged and beneficial?

• Which current and future partnerships are vital to Webster University?

• Which existing critical partnerships require continued cultivation and development

This “box” is very closely related to the more general idea of partnerships, with a focus on global impact and reach.

• How can we identify and measure the competencies that transform students for global citizenship?

• How can we strengthen connections among St. Louis, the extended and the international campuses?

• How can we strengthen the existing international sites and add new international sites?

This box appears at the pinnacle of the pyramid because our reputation rests on the value we provide our students, our communities, our partners, and ourselves.

• What do you think makes Webster distinctive? How should we capitalize on our distinctive qualities?

• Who do you see as Webster’s competition?

• On what criteria would you like to see Webster rank on the top?

Very soon we will begin to engage with a consultant who will help us clarify the messages that best convey what is special and valuable about Webster—for students, for alumni, for donors, for potential employees, for all those whose good opinion and support we seek because they help us accomplish our vision and mission.

As you can see,  I have today raised more questions than I have provided answers.  That’s because I believe the best answers to these questions—those that will be prized and owned by our community must come from us—all of us.

Because my academic background is steeped in the liberal arts disciplines of history and literature, I naturally find the history of an institution an important starting point in understanding it from the inside out.

And my conceptualization of any set of challenges and opportunities then naturally moves to a consideration of the metaphors that may prove  helpful in making the strange familiar while also providing new insights.

So last winter, I started thinking about Webster as a hub with spokes that needed a rim to connect the ends of the spokes. But that feels too stiff and linear to me now that I understand more about the brainpower distributed across this network of Webster communities.

This fall I began to use the comparison with the Food Network show “Chopped” to convey the contraries of the various elements of Webster and the necessity to embrace all of those contraries to convey the richness of Webster’s bounty.

And I of course have relied on the metaphor of “story” to personalize the Webster experience.

But today, I want to close with a focus on this twin need for leadership that creates results and values process as the foundation for a metaphor for leadership that I learned many years ago when researching the metaphors that women leaders in higher education used to describe their styles of leadership.   One of those women, an early mentor for me, described leaders in this way:

Leaders invite others to the table

This inclusive way of enacting leadership builds community, increases the capacity of individuals and the organization, and is a way to extend the benefits that we have enjoyed because we were invited to tables where important conversations and learning took place. We, in turn, invite others.

The table metaphor and its associations with ancient codes of hospitality are strong —in literary tradition and in history, even in religious imagery. Think of King Arthur’s Round Table or the famous table of the Paris Peace Talks.   For each of us who was ever relegated to the “kids’” table at family gatherings, we recall the delight when we were included at the adult table for the first time.

A Chinese proverb states, “A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books.”    From many conversations with many wise Webster people who come to the table with rich and diverse experiences and ideas will come the answers to those questions we must answer to “live in the hope” of our mission and vision. Because each one of us brings valuable contributions to the table.

Past generations of Webster leadership made the decisions that we enjoy today.

Our decisions, which must be rooted in the core values of Webster’s history [students, learning, diversity, global awareness], will rest on our best analyses of data and modeling of future projections, as well as the creative and responsive thinking that comes from engaging ourselves and our community, to make the choices that matter for Webster now and in its next century.

As we work in an environment of SHARED LEADERSHIP, in conversation around tables both local and global, physical, and virtual—we will need structures, processes, and technologies that enable us to bring forward the best ideas from across the Webster community.  Just as an example, we will use websites, surveys, focus groups, town halls, task forces, and committees to provide opportunities for your voices to be heard.  We’ll set the table and provide a place for you there—please accept the invitation and join the conversation.

That work has already begun—projects begun before I arrived, some that we launched this fall, more that we’ll begin in the spring, and of course, those that will still be waiting for us for several years to come.

Projects Underway Now

• My Story website

• Eden Theological Seminary (sale, purchase, lease, library agreement, etc.)

• Worldwide Enrollment Management (Paul Carney)

• Campus Master Plan—thanks for ideas provided in late December

• Facilities for SBT and science programs

• Global Citizenship Project Task Force—applaud and celebrate faculty-led rethinking of general education, high impact instructional strategies, pathways to create students’ success

• “Next Level Strategies and Decisions” framework you’re seeing today

Projects We Will Start This Spring

• Search for  Senior Vice President and Provost—Witt Kieffer visiting next week

• Reputation Enhancement Institutional Messages Phase of Integrated Marketing Plan—consulting firm engaging us in self-study based on core values

• Expanded Collaboration with Eden Theological Seminary

• IT Strategic planning

• Webster University Leadership Academy (Dean Akande—assessment, design, implementation)

• Public phase of campaign

• Comprehensive analysis of HR topics: benchmarking, data from Great Colleges to Work For, and effectiveness of current employment options for FT and PT employees

• Presidential Communication Plan—internal and external audiences

• Partnership Inventory

• China strategy—take advantage of our capacity and current opportunity

Projects That Remain

• Strategic Plan for Internationalism—International Partners Strategy

• Review of trends in operating budgets for academic and administrative units

• Diversity Initiatives

• Metrics/Dashboard for Measuring Webster’s Success

• Webster institutional-level assessment of learning plan

• Market-responsive  Academic Program Development Fund

• Many others. . .

I look forward to working with you and all those we serve, to continue to shape a future in ways that we can celebrate in 2015 and 2020 and that future generations will add to the list of those moments that defined a Webster yet to be.