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2018 Spring Convocation

 

Thursday, January 11, 2018
Spring Convocation, Winifred Moore Auditorium, Webster Groves campus

Welcome to 2018—I am glad to be here today in this place with all of you who are physically present and those connected with us at a distance.  Thank you for joining us for Spring Convocation.

I will speak for a few minutes and then ask colleagues to join me to talk in greater detail about our progress in preparing for the March visit of the Higher Learning Commission and in advancing our vision and mission as expressed in the strategic plan. 

This is a time of year when I have just returned from the annual meeting of independent college presidents.  The conversations with these colleagues are always instructive about the state of our institutions, but more about that in a few minutes.

Some of you know that I began my career as a high school English teacher and then as a professor who, at least in part, worked with teachers and students to develop their talents as writers and readers.  In recent years, I have made the kinds of new year’s resolutions we are prone to make in January--to reconnect to that part of my professional identity—reading more and writing more and facilitating more reading and writing by others.

So it was natural as I thought about my remarks today to share with you poetry that has been on my mind for several months.

The poet is David Whyte. He made his home in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Yorkshire, Wales and Ireland. He holds a degree in Marine Zoology and is an Associate Fellow of the Said Business School at the University of Oxford.

Here, for us to consider together:

WHAT TO REMEMBER WHEN WAKING by David Whyte.

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?

-- David Whyte

On one level, I read this poem’s opening lines and think about that brief moment between being asleep and being awake. 

How do I approach the day? 

How do I use that moment—how can I be more attuned to that moment—that small opening into the new day—before I close it with my plans for the day?

[In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.
]

Yet as we begin this new year and a new semester, the lines of David Whyte’s poem cause me to think about “moments” in other ways.

[Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky
?]

I often have in these convocations spoken of defining moments—the meaningful experiences that stand out in our memory.  As this university approached its Centennial, we together recalled the moments in our history that truly defined Webster—our founding, the decision to become co-ed and independent, taking education out of Webster Groves to students where they lived and worked —whether they were in the military, or working adults in metropolitan locations, or living in Europe, Asia, and Africa—and providing fully online programs at high levels of quality. 

It has been my sense for several years that higher education in the United States and Webster have been facing a moment that demands we approach this moment being awake to the possibilities.

This moment calls upon us to transcend business as usual.

We must rewire our understanding of ourselves and our world—gaining new insights as we face challenges to our current understandings.

We are called upon to be at our best—to show courage and to create brave spaces.

And we must treasure our connections with each other.

What do we know about this moment in higher education and for us at Webster?

As I said earlier, I just returned from the annual meeting of the Council of Independent College Presidents.  I am proud to have just been elected as a member of this organization’s Board of Directors.  I have been involved with CIC initiatives for several years, having served on their Project for the Future of Independent Higher Education; we hosted one of their workshops here on our campus last spring.

Here is what we know now about the challenge faced by independent colleges and universities:

  • Student demographics have changed—a recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains “Today’s College Students Aren’t Who You Think”.  The students we compete for are older, more likely to work part-time to meet financial challenges and family responsibilities, and are more diverse in their backgrounds, experiences, and preparation.
  • Foreign student enrollment in the U.S., which had topped 1 million in recent counts, has now slowed due to restrictive practices and views. When the Institute of International Education surveyed institutions about their foreign student enrollments, universities reported their numbers had declined by an average of 7% in the past year.  A recent New York Times article pointed out how the loss of international students has particularly hit the budgets of Midwestern universities.
  • Continued policy changes at the state and federal level, captured most recently in the approved federal tax reform legislation and the pending Higher Education Reauthorization as well as new directives from the U. S. Department of Education illustrate the distrust and lack of regard and support for the work of U. S. colleges and universities.
  • As a result, it should be no surprise to us that Moody’s has downgraded their outlook for the higher education sector in the U. S.  from stable to negative.  They cite the financial strains on tuition revenue at many institutions as well as the threat of pending federal policies on institutions’ financial well-being.
  • Market forces—increased competition for available students as well as the trends in military tuition assistance, employer tuition reimbursement, and employment and course taking trends among working adults—all converge to make our reliance on graduate student markets vulnerable indeed.

Webster has not and will not escape these threats.  We are in a moment that requires our best commitment to each other as members of our community, a willingness to gain insights and understandings that form our plans for our future, and the courage to propose and embrace new ways to advancing our vision and mission.

David Leonhardt, New York Times editor, who provided the opening plenary for the Council of Independent Colleges institute, spoke to the question of “What’s at stake for independent colleges in our turbulent world?”  He linked his analysis of economic stagnation to trends in income inequality, making this assertion, “Education is the single most powerful force for society. . . the single best bet for individuals.”

He acknowledged, of course, that that view is no longer universally shared.  When a college president asked him what we should do about the general lack of trust and credibility for our institutions, David Leonhardt had to laugh at the irony of a member of the media responding to such a question. But he had an answer that he applies to his work at the Times and that he recommended to all of us:

We must continue to improve.  When others are asking the question, “Is college worth it?”  we must be able to provide a resounding “yes,” making it ever more true at Webster.

We each must continue to do our best, to improve the outcomes that matter.  In our case, that means working well to increase students’ success, strengthen  retention, graduate students with less debt,  contribute to their social mobility, and prepare students for meaningful and purposeful lives and careers.

That is what our colleagues are prepared now to help us understand about Webster—how are we doing in achieving the outcomes we have established for ourselves in the strategic plan?

I am glad to ask Julian Schuster, Nancy Hellerud, and our colleagues to help us know where we stand now in preparing for our upcoming accreditation visit and implementing our strategic plan to improve the outcomes that matter.

Colleagues,

We clearly see progress in many of the areas that have our focus and attention.

I want to thank everyone who has contributed to these positive results.  We still have work to do—we know that the way forward for Webster and for our students—will require that we face this convergence of market, demographic, policy, and financial challenges being awake to the moment, to use poet David Whyte’s words, or to use the language of protests, being fully woke.

We have convened a steering committee who will engage us in the same ways we have been engaged to advance the strategic plan—with the intention that we as a university community will:

  • Innovate to build and strengthen new sources of revenue
  • Manage inefficiencies in our system
  • Align costs with revenues.

Success for Webster, just as it has come for this university in our previous defining moments, depends upon our awareness of the world around us and ourselves, our insight, our courage, and our commitment to do what is needed.

May we seize this moment to define our future in the best possible way—to see the slanting light of possibility, to feel the urgency of a calling to what we love, to grow the seed of a new shape.  A new shape for Webster can mean many things, and all ideas are welcome that preserve what matters to our students and to us—that makes college worth it—that, in tried and true words—meets today’s unmet needs.

 

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