2020 Spring Convocation | Webster University

2020 Spring Convocation

Hello, and Happy New Year! At the end of each calendar year, we have come to expect the usual year in review stories—somber or satiric—along with social media posts of the best and worst of the previous twelve months. This year, because we have closed the 2010s, these accounts have enlarged to take in an entire decade.

A poignant Twitter post asks: "Another new year. How many more of these are we going to have?"

It is good, of course, to take a moment to reflect on what we have individually and collectively experienced—how these past days and years have shaped our values and identities.

Our community has enjoyed two recent examples of such stock taking—the Webster Journal's decade in review series, which you can find on social media and on their blog posts at websterdecade.home.blog/ ... and the long-awaited publication of Dr. Allen Larson's The Sisters Backstage.

In those we hear our student journalists' point of view about changes significant to them in the past ten years, and we learn how the Sisters of Loretto's friendship with hotelier Conrad Hilton provided for us, and for so many in the region, The Webster University Loretto Hilton Center.

As we reflect on the people, places, and events that have made a difference at Webster I note that on January 23rd at 11:30, in this room, we will gather as a university community to honor and celebrate the life and career of the late dean emeritus Peter Sargent. Please join us.

Some of you may know that I have been working with several colleagues in the university Reflective Teaching Community on the topic of place-based education. As we are developing a conceptual framework and testing it against Webster experiences locally and globally, I appreciate these conclusions from a recent blog post by Akronite Jason Segedy about the significance of place:

"The past is a tricky thing to navigate.  You can't be held captive by it, be paralyzed by it, or preserve it in amber.  On the other hand, you cannot cut yourself off from it, pretend it didn't shape who you are, or create an alternate reality to avoid it.

It is in our nature as humans to evolve and change.  It is also in our nature to crave permanence and stability.  That paradox is who we are.   That union of change and permanence is the rhythm of human life. The trick is to embrace the past, and have it inform, but not dictate, the future – to stand on the shoulders of giants, in order to look forward."

In the past ten years, we have enjoyed a number of moments that did just that for us as a university community, informing but not dictating, with great benefit for us and for our students. I think of the year-long 2015 celebration of the centennial of our founding—the lasting achievements from that year are many. A few of these are the symbolic:
A new alma mater
Our first ever fight song
The centennial bench in front of Webster Hall
The time capsule

Most lasting is the impact created by those who simultaneously celebrated Webster's history and invested in our future by funding the Next Century Leaders' Endowed Scholarship Fund with over $1 million. Since the fund was launched, 62 Webster students have received scholarship support to attend Webster, including 24 this year. And because this is an endowed fund, it will continue in perpetuity.

Just this past year we marked the centennial of our first graduating class. Again, we used the moment to build the bridge from past to present to future and created the opportunity for an alumna to design the seal that signifies so much about Webster.

In the past ten years, we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Conservatory and the 40th anniversary of Webster's first international campus in Geneva. Both of these were accompanied by significant, positive gifts from donors that will make stronger futures for the Conservatory and for Webster Geneva.

It is in this moment that we find ourselves—our second century—that we have the unique opportunity to partner with our alumni, our friends, and our donors for Webster's future with optimism and enthusiasm.

I will talk more about that in a few minutes—the steps we will take together this spring and in the 2020s. But first, I think it is useful for all of us to have a grounding in how in these past ten years we have benefitted from valued friendships to strengthen our students' success and to enhance our educational excellence.

So, let us look back over the past decade and consider: What have we been able to do with the hard work of our community and donor support?

Since 2009... overall we garnered more than $53 million in gifts and pledges.

What does that look like? It breaks down into several funds for annual and endowed scholarships.
113 endowed funds have been established by donors with a combined value exceeding $16.3 million
163 named annual scholarships have been established by donors with annual amounts ranging from $1,500 to $80,000
2,867 donors have made 8,657 gifts totaling more than $915,000 to Webster's general scholarship fund and to the general scholarship funds within the schools and colleges

And you can see how this growth has made an impact on students: We have gone from $350,000 in donor-funded scholarships awarded a decade ago to almost $1 million in the last academic year. The number of students benefiting has more than doubled to 440 in 2018-19.

Our donors have supported our institutional and operational needs as well. Over the past 10 years, 5,490 donors have made 26,089 gifts totaling more than $28.1 million in support of operational, capital, general endowment, academic, athletic and campus activities inside and out of the classroom, here at the Webster Groves campus, at U.S. metro and military campuses, and at our campuses throughout the world. Julian will discuss some of the results of these gifts in a few minutes.

4,845 donors have made 20,757 gifts totaling more than $3 million to the Vision Fund – unrestricted gifts that allow us to identify where the need is greatest. These gifts have supported strategic efforts like:
• student retention initiatives
• short and long-term study abroad scholarships
• faculty grant writing support
• international student orientation
• student suicide prevention programming
• online tutoring for quantitative subjects

181 donors have made 308 gifts totaling more than $126,000 specifically to the annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference and its related programs/activities. This conference has grown each year since 2016 – both in its breadth and impact.

This year's conference will span four days, with featured speakers each day including NPR's Michele Norris, syndicated columnist and filmmaker Aisha Sultan, and Witnessing Whiteness author Shelley Tochluk. I look forward to seeing you all there Feb. 24-27.

We know that donor support has made a direct impact, both on individuals through scholarships and programs of support, as well as on our entire university's infrastructure and capacity to provide a better experience for students. And we know those successes in turn garner external recognition that helps us attract further funding, and lets more prospective students know about what Webster can offer them.

So with that in mind, how do we sustain that momentum? What does Webster need most going forward? Julian and I and a number of colleagues have been engaging members of our community about their priorities for serving students more effectively and strengthening our academic quality. This will help us tell the Webster stories that encourage even greater generosity from our alumni, friends, and partners.

Some themes and proposed priorities are starting to take shape. While these are still very much in draft form, here are the kinds of things that have been noted so far:

♣ Scholarships growth (e.g. transfers, first-generation, retention)
♣ Athletics facilities and support
♣ Study Abroad, Undergraduate Research, and other high-impact practices
♣ Continue refining our "Student-first" culture, from first visit, to orientation, academics and career prep, to graduation and alumni success.

Build capacity for Educational Excellence
♣ Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. These are important for meeting the needs of the 21st century student body
♣ Infrastructure improvements such as the Academic Resource Center

♣ Facilities and technology that provide more opportunities for students – student life, quality of academics, extracurricular activities, intercollegiate competition
♣ Grow the Honors College, which is piloted this year
♣ Grow endowed faculty professorships and continue to attract great faculty

A note about Athletics: This academic year we have 352 student athletes – 185 women and 167 men. They come to Webster from all across the country, and they are represented in all five colleges and schools. Many of them cite Athletics as the reason they chose Webster over similar schools. This year they have a cumulative GPA of 3.28, so they excel on the field as well as in the classroom, earning championship accolades and selections to regional and national All-Academic teams.

Athletics pie chart: CAS 39%, SBT 20%, SOC 17%, SOE 6%, LGSCFA 2%, UND 5%]
As Division III student athletes we support them only with academic scholarships, yet their facilities are outdated and inadequate to support their continued excellence.

As we review the priorities submitted by deans and heads of student-serving units, we know there will be more ideas for all of us to consider. To prioritize and vet the many good ideas that will surface, we will form focus groups of students, staff, faculty during the spring semester.

From there, we will finalize campaign documents and materials. We hope you will volunteer to join us in meetings with donors—your voices and your stories are important in making the case for the exceptional value of a Webster education and the impact of each and every gift.

Our capacity to excel is here. And the desire to support Webster is evident: We saw this just last month on Giving Tuesday, when we tripled our participation results. And on Dec. 30, a simple year-end pitch to alumni elicited 42 gifts to Webster in under two days.

As we connect with each other, as we demonstrate the impact of Webster, and as we show how our successes are tied to this support, we will build the case for the next comprehensive campaign.
I thank all of you for joining me in this campaign that has such significance for Webster's future.
And now, I would like to turn it over to my partner in leadership, Webster's president, Julian Schuster.

Thank you, Julian. At this time of year, it is easy to lapse into a nostalgic mode—thinking that the times we are in now are inherently worse than times past.

I know many of us feel that – because frankly, higher education used to be much simpler than it is today. We were confident in what we offered because we knew it was right – students, parents, employers, acknowledged its value and nonprofit colleges and universities in many ways enjoyed a marketplace with growing demand and few competitors . Today we must be more competitive, we are more highly regulated, and we must do more to validate what we offer. The landscape for higher education has been fraught in the past decade with even greater challenges ahead.

But I ask all of us to consider the present from a more positive lens: Objectively, we are stronger academically than ever before, as evidenced by the initiatives we mentioned today, the improved profiles of our incoming classes, and our ability to retain and graduate an increasing diverse student body.
Julian speaks

Over the winter break, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof titled a column, "This Has Been the Best Year Ever." Based on your individual circumstances or world outlook, you may disagree. But Kristof mentioned some points that provide a positive perspective:

"Since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases."

Global poverty continues to fall. Global literacy continues to rise. "Deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering," Kristoff wrote. "Excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless but also helpless."

The point is, even when times are tough, even when it feels like we are not meeting the elevated expectations we have for our world, we must be positive about what we have achieved. And we can use that not to feel satisfied, but rather to inspire us to achieve even greater still, to fuel our imaginations
Julian speaks

Great thinkers like Gandhi urged us to focus on the positive. To be people of integrity in word and action. To embody that which we want for the world. As Alice Walker wrote, "We are the ones we have waited for."

James Clear, author of the new York Times bestseller, "Atomic Habits," advises us of the importance of each day, each interaction, each decision in this way: "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become."

Friends and colleagues, I suggest that we think and act in ways that convey not "Those were the days" but rather These are the days! What we do each and every day is our vote for a stronger, better Webster that is true to our values now, a decade from now, and a century from now. It is up to us to assure a brighter, stronger, sustainable future.

We wish you a very happy new year.