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

2017 Fall Convocation


Thursday, August 24, 2017
Fall Convocation - Coming Together

Welcome, everyone!  It’s good to see all of you here, and to communicate worldwide with those watching online from around the Webster network.  Fall Convocation is an amazing time to catch up with colleagues, welcome new faces, and gear up for the academic year.  We return from summer travels and learning feeling refreshed, ready to serve the outstanding students who have chosen Webster for their education.  Later we will hear from some of our community members about what they have been learning in 2017.

But for those of us in St. Louis and a few other campuses, this week the sun and moon aligned to gives us an early opportunity to get together:  the solar eclipse.  It was spectacular, and this Webster University community was at our best.  Thanks to all the people from across our Webster University community, what began as an idea in the Department of Biological Studies for educational activities about the eclipse here in Webster Groves grew – and grew and grew! – into what was one of the larger and more festive events in memory.  We estimate almost 1,000 people enjoyed our campus on this special day.  Many were here from across the region, seeing Webster University for the first time.  They took in not just the East Academic Building and the viewing area on the parking garage; they made themselves at home in the Natural Area, in the Quad, around Thompson Music Building, and of course the brand new Browning Hall.

I mention the solar eclipse event for two reasons. One, we want to thank all the people who thought of this fantastic idea.  Over the summer as it became clear this event would attract closer to 1,000 people rather than 11, the call was put out to turn it into a true welcoming party for our visitors.  Staff, faculty, students, and alumni helped expand the event, enlarging the kid activities, conducting research, bringing food trust to campus, a DJ, and staff tables to welcome visitors and share information about our programs. 

The second reason to talk about the eclipse event is what it represented:  a way to come together.  For those of us at Webster, but also for people across the region, from school children to senior citizens, and even a few family pets. We saw so many new faces on campus, from all walks of life. We need moments like this to find common purpose, to put the focus outside ourselves, to gain valuable perspective on our shared humanity in the face of natural phenomena.  Webster at its best – and not from a sense of crisis or threat – but coming together because of nature and science.

It was a moving morning and afternoon, and one that is most welcome in our current climate.  Because this year, as last year, we come to our annual Fall Convocation recognizing that the same students who arrive at Webster with bright hopes for their education are also feeling anxiety about the dark events swirling around our world.  Last year when we gathered in this same space I reflected on that summers mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where a murderous gunman targeted members of the LGBTQ community.  It prompted me to ask the question, “Who is our neighbor?”

While we at Webster have pursued that question, developing and appreciating the neighbors among and around us, the world around us continues to be marked by movements that retreat from differences rather than embrace and celebrate them.  Today we gather with thoughts of Charlottesville and Barcelona close in our minds. More attacks on fellow humans fueled by hatred, bigotry, fear.  The names of these two cities now take on this added significance because of the loss of life, pain, and sorrow we associate with them – Ferguson, St. Paul, Nice, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Munich, Istanbul, Tokyo, Milwaukee, London, Brussels, Manchester.  Now Charlottesville.  Barcelona.

In each of these cases, we see people emboldened to turn to violence, hateful speech and actions to provoke and disrespect others, belittle their identity, and denigrate them to shut down discussion by denigrating them.  As humans, we have our own emotional reactions to these events.  As academics, we have our own theories about what they reflect about our society. But as educators, as members of a global University community, we also see in them an obligation.

  • We must make sure – and reassure through words and actions – that our students feel welcome at Webster.
  • We must continue to foster an inclusive community where such hatred can find no home.
  • We must continue to both preach and practice our core value of diversity and inclusion: by embracing all human differences while building on our shared humanity, eliminating discrimination and exclusion in our community.

One way to deliver on this promise is to recognize that in the face of hate and discrimination, silence is not an option.

The morning after the events in Charlottesville (and I’m a UVA alum for those who don’t know) my pastor, Linda Johnson Gastreich, spoke of this in her Sunday sermon.  She said, “As a nation, we cannot be silent while the rest of the world watches – and wonders how we can possibly be a source of strength and stability.”  Whether the world or we will see the U.S. as a source of strength and stability in the coming days is a topic larger than Fall Convocation.

What is clear is that we cannot let our students down.  We must be true to Webster’s ideals and our capacity to make a difference in their lives.  Terrifying events and reflections of our society’s ills certainly sadden us and make us individually retreat amid feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and remorse, but as Pastor Linda said: “The lesson I’ve tried to learn is not to be mired in guilt – but rather to realize the hugely devastating power of silence.”

I echo today what she asked that day of our community: “Are all of us willing to do some work that will help us recognize our own biases?  Can we read something that makes us uncomfortable?  Can we have a challenging conversation or attend an event knowing as we walk into the door that we may not agree with everything that is said?”  We asked ourselves questions like that last year, and thankfully our students have likewise engaged and, in some key instances, led the way.

One of the beauties of a university community is that certainly, we teach our wonderful students; but they also teach us.  And so last Spring, after our town hall addressing the uncertainty around the U.S. travel ban on citizens from some Muslim-majority countries, a group of Webster students and staff worked together to develop a campaign to promote diversity, inclusion, and respect on campus.

One element of the campaign is an inclusion pledge that these students are making available now to their classmates – and to all of us – as a way of expressing support and welcome to each other, no matter our differences.  In a collaborative process, it was refined with feedback from Student Affairs and Nicole Roach, our Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, and this end product was supported in a unanimous vote by the Student Government Association.  It’s a voluntary pledge, of course.  Like any pledge or anthem, it is a public symbol of intentions that must be followed by action to bring these values to life.

But the pledge, and the materials developed around it, are expressions of Webster University’s core values as applied to the world our students find themselves navigating in 2017.  Now, do not mistake the pledge for something that it is not.  Our students are not restricting speech.  They are not legislating a certain way of thinking.  They are responding to a need, felt from many corners in our community, to reaffirm the belief that all of us should feel welcome here.  That all of us are learning from one another.  And that to achieve these ideals and the ideals of Webster, we must all listen, have those uncomfortable conversations, reach out to understand rather than to judge.

But of course we must be mindful of our own duty to help all of our students in a landscape where free speech is indeed under duress.  A college campus is a place to exercise the unfettered exchange of ideas.  It is an environment where we know and come to learn from people of many different backgrounds, cultures and points of views from ours.  It is our responsibility as educators to help our students navigate that landscape, to help them hone the critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills to prepare for what lies ahead. They must feel welcome and safe to expand their learning here.  They must also understand that deep learning demands that they encounter and experience difference beliefs, perspectives, and cultures.  And is not this community worth of those ideals?

Another beauty of Webster is that our community truly spans the world. At any given moment, at any campus in our network, we are in communication with students, faculty and staff who hail from the next town as well as the other side of the globe.  It is intentional that we embrace and sustain this attribute of Webster, with all of the opportunities and hurdles that come with it.  It is by design that we foster this globally diverse community such as this.  Due to its complex, multicultural, and geography-spanning nature, Webster’s very nature creates awkward moments.  It creates logistical hurdles. It virtually guarantees occasional cultural misunderstandings.

And yet it creates wonderful learning opportunities, outcomes that make Webster one of a kind.  It is worth those awkward moments and uncomfortable conversations if we can learn from them and better ourselves, better the place we call home and make it better than when we arrived.  Right here in St. Louis, we’re welcoming our largest incoming class in memory, 525.  They arrived this week after hundreds of people from the community visited campus – many for the first time – for the solar eclipse event.

And of course, as visitors to our solar eclipse event discovered, we have an exciting new addition to campus (in addition to the expanded parking garage):  Browning Hall, the interdisciplinary science building, has opened in time for the new academic year.  Earlier I spoke of our community’s response to episodes of violence and hate.  But the examples of what results from inclusivity, from embracing people of many backgrounds, can be quite practical and every bit as important to our daily lives.

The whole concept, design and execution of Browning Hall is an example of this.  The need for a better facility for the sciences at Webster has been known for decades.  It was one of my first learnings upon arriving as president.  But it took imagination and relentless diligence from faculty, staff, fundraisers, trustees, donors, community partners, and more to make it a reality.

Its design and function had input from many members of our community.  No doubt those with a background in biological science had different ideas than those in International Languages and Cultures.  No doubt the perspectives of undergraduate students in Human Rights program differed from those in Nurse Anesthesia.  Now that it’s here, our students, our faculty and our community members will benefit in numerous ways originally intended, plus no doubt more ways that we have yet to imagine.

That is what happens when we engage with people whose ideas, ambitions, and pursuits differ from our own. That is what we can imagine when we seek input beyond our own individual disciplines.  And that is what we can achieve when we remember who we are as an institution, and why we are here as a community. 

We will conclude the program today with a video of some of your voices.  We have spoken here about the value of self-examination, the importance of expanding our experience to hear new ideas, and to get to know those different from ourselves. At last Spring’s Convocation I discussed the commitment to learning in our mission and values.  Julian and I invited you all to consider not just our students’ learning, but our own individual learning.  Each one of us best encourages lifelong learning when we are learners ourselves.  That is why over the summer we asked some of you to tell us what you are learning.

Thank you.  We wish all of us a terrific year – a year to support our students’ success, to engage in learning, to embrace our roles as global citizens, and to strengthen a diverse and inclusive community.