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

2017 Spring Convocation


Thursday, January 12, 2017
Spring Convocation, Winifred Moore Auditorium, Webster Groves campus

As we begin the spring semester and I think back to the Fall 2016 Convocation, I have shared with some of you but want to say to all of you what an exceptional experience that was for me.

What made Fall 2016 Convocation stand out, at least for me?

Some superficial things come to mind—the circumstances that caused me to handle it solo in the fall and my personal relief that our Centennial year had come to a close, which gave me opportunity to move past the 100 years references.

What was different for me was that I spoke more personally than was my habit at these convocations.  In place of recounting recent institutional accomplishments, I instead told the stories of tragedy associated with so many places around the world.  I reflected on how those events touched me and caused me to call for us to think deeply and act intentionally to build community, to choose inclusion, to face our biases and openly speak for the values and convictions we embrace. 

I was concerned and frankly still am that the natural silos of a complex university comprised of so many diverse individuals and groups coupled with our geographic reach could easily lead to each of us feeling isolated from each other, knowing each other little, and as a result de-valuing the unseen and the unknown. 

I called for us to become more intentionally aware of the diversity of Webster as our strength.  #WeAreAllWebster  to coin a phrase. . .

BUT, what I will never forget is the response from this university community.  What I’m talking about is action.  What I’m talking about is conversation.  People talking to each other about what they can do to make connections across the Webster community and to the local 63119 community and to the downtown St. Louis community and all the communities where we and our students make our homes.   We have been about the work, embracing our core value of diversity and inclusion.

Here are a few examples. . .

In an effort to better connect our community across geographic barriers, Webster Staff Alliance established a scholarship for up to four staff members from our extended campuses to come to St. Louis in March to attend either the Diversity and Inclusion conference or the WSA Professional Development Day.

Director Arnd Wacther returned to campus for a communal screening and discussion of his Crossing Borders film series exploring settings for diversity and inclusion. All three films are available online through the Library with curricular tools from MCISA to use in the classroom.

Several members of our community have engaged with regular events held by the local Alliance for Interracial Dignity, which is coordinating dialogue on diversity and inclusion among Webster Groves community organizations.

There are many examples of this kind of activity in our Global Citizenship Program courses, with faculty engaging students in active, inclusive learning in the First Year Seminars and in the Keystone courses.

To mention just a couple of examples, Kelly McBride’s class on Placelessness took on a group project to arrange a welcome party for 50 newly resettled refugees – the majority of them men, women and children from Syria. And Tasha Scola’s keystone class chose to make a video highlighting Webster and how people of different walks of life can “find your place” at Webster.

Through its CLICK series, the Walker School is engaging alumni and current students with networking opportunities to join area nonprofit junior boards, giving them insights and tools to become leaders of impact in the greater community early in their careers.

Julian will mention a few similar examples from our international campuses in his remarks. But I wanted to reference a few examples here, as several units and people have been working very intentionally to engage with faculty, staff and students in these discussions.

At the same time, we have been working in teams and groups to research the policies and practices necessary to move this community forward on the continuous path to equity.  Nicole Roach will tell us more about the progress and next steps in a few minutes.

We should be proud as members of this community that we have embraced our core value of diversity and inclusion with such commitment and with so many tangible results.  

It is paying off in terms of access. Since 2009, we have seen a 500% increase in scholarship dollars distributed to students from private sources. In the past two and a half years we have seen a 300% increase in external grant funding. And we have increased our minority-focused scholarships in many areas, including a partnership with the Rotary Club of St. Louis awarding scholarships to St. Louis public high school students and the Dr. Donald M. Suggs Scholars, awarding more than $500,000 in scholarships to students from underrepresented populations. These serve to strengthen the capacity of our community to create and serve a diverse, inclusive student body.

But, I know from speaking with so many of you and with so many of our students, that our confidence in this community has been shaken. The residence hall incident that compelled our attention in December showed us that the struggle with community, identity and bias is never far from the surface. 

More people than you could possibly know came together from among our students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni to investigate, assess, and —most importantly—support our students and reinforce Webster’s values in the face of language which turned our core values upside down.  As we reflect on this community’s response, we know that our words and actions show that during the most difficult moments, our true strengths help us rise to the challenge.

This community’s immediate, collective response was an emphatic statement that all of us at Webster do, in fact, have the capacity and commitment to thrive as a responsive, compassionate and principled worldwide network of people determined to make our university and indeed the world a better place.

I mentioned this at our faculty/staff holiday party in St. Louis last month, but it bears repeating here to our larger worldwide audience: I have never been more proud of our community than in the days following that incident.

But while many worked behind the scenes to ensure our students were safe and supported, and the proper judicial approach was followed, please do not mistake the nature of our public response: It was important to say, to the extent we legally could, what was being done about this incident, but also how that response fit into an overall portfolio of initiatives that this community has been building from every corner of our network.

No matter what happened in December – to say nothing about national and global events that daily move us to think of these issues – my intention for Spring Convocation is to help us focus as a community.

We will gain our focus by taking pride in our successes—knowing that what we commit to do we will do.  Our 101 years tell us we are keepers.  And we don’t have to rely on our own press.  The news of our success is not fake.  In the past 6 months the quality of our academic programs and operations, and our success in serving students has been recognized by:

U.S. News and World Report recognized us with our best score in 10 years, our highest ranking in three years, our campus ethnic diversity, our socioeconomic diversity, our faculty resources and our access for veterans. And just this week they again commended our online programs, with three of them appearing in national rankings.

Diverse Issues in Higher Education again recognized us, for the 25th consecutive year, as first in the nation among private nonprofit colleges for granting graduate degrees to our minorities. We are the only institution in Missouri to be ranked in several of their categories. 

Additional recent recognitions come from organizations like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, National Endowment for the Arts, the Austrian and Ghanaian governments, Moody’s Investors Services, and the Urban League.  These recognitions reflect the strength, the breadth and indeed the diversity of our network, as well as the intentional efforts we have in place to serve our students.

We are resilient.  We have the stuff it takes to excel in the most challenging times.

We will maintain our focus—staying true to our core values—by continuing to learn, to create, to listen to each other, to seek the best in each other, and to want the best for each other.

This work will take all of us.  It will only be possible to build a truly inclusive community in which each of us feels valued, safe, and successful—a community that thrives, rather than struggles with the ever-evolving face of Webster if each one of us embraces not only the value of diversity and inclusion but also values learning, students, global citizenship.

At this moment, please join me in welcoming remarks by Senior Vice President, Provost and Chief Operating Officer Julian Schuster and our colleague, AVP for Diversity and Inclusion and Senior Director for Community Engagement Nicole Roach.

For a few moments, I want to focus on the semester before us. 

We have work to do—it is important work and it is worthy work.  It is the work we have prepared to do and it is the work that we are uniquely assembled as a community to do.

How have we defined that work?  Today we have heard about some strategic aspects of our progress, the results and accomplishments that we as a worldwide community are achieving.

I want us to find our grounding and our roots in the 4 core values established by this community in the 2008 strategic plan and reaffirmed in our current plan:

These 4 core values work best in harmony with one another:

Meeting our students’ unmet needs—in all their rich diversity—and making the meeting of their needs our highest priority will lead naturally to including them and supporting them as learners now and across their lifetimes as global citizens.

But what does that mean for us?  As I read the summary statements attached to each of the core values, they focus on the meaning for students, but not for us.

How do these core values describe us as individuals and as a community?

To what extent are we students ourselves?  What do we need to learn?  How inclusive are we of the diversity of our colleagues?  And how are we growing in our commitments to an increasingly connected, global community?

While 2016 was a challenging year, it was a year of learning and 2017 provides us with another opportunity.

It is my intention to approach the work in the year ahead as a learner—I need to learn more to keep growing intellectually, personally, professionally.

I plan to learn more about a diversity of topics and I plan to learn with and from you and with and from our students.

I will read more and read more widely.  I will write more, and I will attend and participate in events that give me new learning opportunities. make and to create.

There will be many opportunities for us to join our students as learner in the coming weeks and months.  

We look forward to the learning ahead.  Join us and let’s start.