Webster Groves Presbyterian Church Men's First Friday Breakfast

Good morning! It is a pleasure for me to be here today to share breakfast and fellowship with you, and to give you a look at what’s new with one of Webster Groves’ oldest institutions, Webster University. 

You know, occasions like this are what “community” is all about: Coming together, greeting friends and strangers alike, sharing knowledge and news, and joining each other around that timeless ritual that’s as old as humankind itself: The community meal. So I thank you for welcoming me to your table this morning.

As I was thinking about what to discuss with you today, I reviewed the Webster Groves Presbyterian Church’s mission statement and mission logo, and a few words stuck out to me: Your emphasis on being welcoming to people of all cultures and backgrounds, and emphasizing how when many hands unite to accomplish a task, the burden of that task becomes lighter and the accomplishment becomes greater.

What great values. That focus on diversity and inclusion is something our two institutions very much hold in common. We like to think we do a good job of that. And others agree. Webster has been recognized for:

  • Our outstanding study abroad program, ranked in the top 2 percent by U.S. News & World Report, and as a top 15 program by the Institute of International Education.
  • U.S. News also ranks Webster in the top tier of Midwestern colleges offering master’s degrees. The publication recognized Webster for our small class sizes, economic diversity, and for "truly seeking a broad, engaged student body."
  • On that note, Affordable Colleges Online recognized Webster for a top return on investment among Missouri colleges.
  • Our Confucius Institute was named 2013 “Confucius Institute of the Year” by HANBAN, the Chinese Ministry of Education, in recognition of Webster's extensive outreach and quality Chinese cultural engagement locally, regionally and internationally.
  • U.S. News has also recognized Webster’s online programs, and the nursing and nurse anesthesia programs as noteworthy graduate programs.
  • Ingram’s Magazine in Kansas City ranked Webster’s MBA as the #1 program in Missouri and Kansas.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education has ranked Webster University as one of the best colleges to work for in all six years that it has conducted a survey.
  • The St. Louis Regional Chamber (formerly RCGA) awarded Webster University the prestigious RCGA Greater St. Louis Top 50 Award for six consecutive year.

Military students, whether active duty, reserve, or veteran, are an important part of our student body. Webster University and the Department of Defense have partnered for 40 years to provide high-quality and cost-effective graduate programs to military personnel. Our alumni include more than 200 active duty and retired generals and admirals, and our education to military personnel is annually recognized by G.I. Jobs, the Military Times and Military Advanced Education, among others.

Overall, Webster University's graduate degree-seeking student population represents the largest number of individuals of diverse backgrounds among all traditional, nonprofit U.S. higher education institutions, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Webster University was also one of four St. Louis organizations honored for its accessibility efforts in 2013 by Paraquad, a non-profit organization that has offered services to the disabled for more than 40 years. Webster was recognized for work on its home campus and its website to make classes, offices and information more accessible to those with disabilities.

Our people are earning recognition too. You might have seen the recent story in the Webster Kirkwood Times about our men’s basketball coach, Chris Bunch. He is a treasure in our athletics program, and he was recently named the D3 Hoops 2013-14 Midwest Region Coach of the Year. He is the first men’s basketball coach in our SLIAC conference to earn the honor.

You might know that we are in 60 cities and 8 countries on 4 continents, including our newest campus in Ghana, our first in Africa. But it all starts here in Webster Groves, where we were founded by the Sisters of Loretto in 1915, and where our vision and values are established and reinforced.

We have faculty and staff of all cultures and backgrounds, and together we unite to accomplish the mission of serving our students and transforming them into global citizens who can make an impact on our world.

That impact can happen anywhere, but it always must start at home. Wherever we are as an institution, whether in Africa or right here at the other end of Lockwood, we preach to our students and to our staff that we are globally connected but locally committed. To be engaged in your local community is to invest in it, to have a stake in its success. 

For us, of course that investment takes the form of sponsorship in local community events like the Art & Air Festival and the Community Days Fourth of July events.

But from an academic and philosophical level, the investment in our community must go much deeper than that. For the past 19 years, Webster University has held Webster Works Worldwide, an annual community service day in partnership with local agencies and nonprofit organizations. At every Webster campus around the world, students, faculty, staff and alumni engage with the community by working on team projects including tutoring, painting, gardening, working with children or seniors, park and trail restoration, and fine arts projects.

In Webster Groves, that can include projects with the Webster Groves Community Arts Foundation, Webster Child Care Center, and the Webster Groves Historical Society, pictured here as volunteers helped at the historic Hawken House.

Investing in the community also means literally opening our doors, inviting community members to campus. Via our Library, our Fitness Center, our Film Series, our Conservatory Theatre, our art galleries and concerts or other cultural events, we open up our doors to the community and invite citizens to enjoy the benefits of having a college campus next door. Perhaps you’ve swam laps in our pool in the morning, or taken in a play on campus, or attended a guest speaker’s lecture or conference.

Webster University has an esteemed reputation for leadership in the arts, and that is one of the things that has made our institution a pillar of this community. Not only do we host the Repertory Theatre and the Opera Theatre on our campus, but we have a similar partnership with the Muny that has our Conservatory students learning in conjunction with these professional theatres. And our Conservatory Theatre itself is among the best in the nation, drawing students from across the country to Webster Groves.

And our Community Music School is another pillar of education in the arts, reaching children as young as six months all the way through their teenage years – and even to those learning music after retirement. 

Founded in 1925, the School’s faculty includes world-class performers who are also master teachers of students of all ages. We have had CMS students featured in national shows, national awards and last year one was featured on National Public Radio.

The CMS serves more than 2,000 students each year and is a member of the National Guild for Community Arts Education, which includes more than 450 schools across the country. To be a member of the Guild, we must meet stringent criteria, such as offering financial assistance and talent-based merit scholarships, and setting high standards for our faculty. In addition, CMS is one of only 12 non-degree-granting community music schools in the United States to have earned accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music. 

Of course, the Conservatory is among the best because it is led by the best. The annual Theatre Circle Awards annually recognize the St. Louis region’s top performers, directors and stage designers, and each year our alumni and faculty are among the award winners. Just last month the chair of our Conservatory, Dottie Englis won the award for Outstanding Costume Design, in recognition of her beautiful designs for “My Fair Lady,” performed at Stages St. Louis in Kirkwood.

But I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most wonderful arts honors a member of Webster University has ever received. Peter Sargent, the longtime dean of our Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, was recently honored with the Missouri Arts Council’s Missouri Arts Award for Leadership in the Arts.

A true patron of the arts, Peter is a treasure of many communities – of Webster University, of Webster Groves, of the greater St. Louis region, and of the national theatre arts community. It was a nice touch for the City of Webster Groves to mark the day of his honor as “Peter Sargent Day.” As noted, Peter is a longtime leader in the arts, and that has made him such a perfect fit at Webster for so many years. 

Our Webster University Art Council aims to leverage our strength in the arts to make it a living, breathing source of engagement with our community. The council works in collaboration with entities in the local and regional communities and beyond to give visual and physical form to our core values related to education, diversity and global citizenship. Through educational outreach, community engagement, and the physical installation and promotion of art, we aim to enhance the sense of place on Webster University’s campus and throughout Webster Groves. 

Pictured here was when Webster Groves' Second Annual Art on the Town included Webster University's public art as part of arranged tours for community members to see.

As a tangible example of this, we invite you to come to campus and see our Trova sculptures, including the iconic Trova Gates. Some sculptures are on loan to Webster University by the Parks Department and Laumeier Sculpture Park, while the gates were donated to the University by Ronald Greenberg, founder and owner of Greenberg Van Doren Gallery and a charter member of Webster University’s Daniel Webster Society. As a part of the loan, Webster agreed to restore and care for the art. Both pieces were in need of repairs after being displayed outdoors at Laumeier.

But as I mentioned before, our institution’s role in community engagement takes many forms, from the artistic and visual to the role of simply bringing people together. On that note, next week is our third annual sustainability conference, which will bring speakers from the corporate, nonprofit, and academic world together to discuss the latest topics in sustainability. You are welcome to come and join that conversation next Thursday and Friday, or check out the program at Webster.edu/sustainability.

“Sustainability” is a word we hear often these days, but its meaning has evolved over time. Naturally it has environmental connotations, whether in reference to nature or to preserving resources we rely on each day. But it has taken on a broader meaning in recent years, focused on a communal desire to build and maintain sustainable, healthy communities that thrive.

Certainly the city of Webster Groves, Webster University, and Webster Groves Presbyterian Church are examples of historic communities that have sustained themselves over many years.

For example, the five separate communities that formed Webster Groves back in 1896 -- Webster, Old Orchard, Webster Park, Tuxedo Park, and Selma – made a conscious decision to merge almost 120 years ago in order to better implement public services and a unified government. That was a decision based on foresight and an understanding of what would be needed for this community to sustain itself well into the future.

Webster University is almost as old – we are celebrating our centennial next year – and beginning with the Sisters of Loretto who founded what was then Loretto College back in 1915, the University has faced several turning points in its history where key decisions were made with an eye toward sustaining this as an institution of higher education that transforms its students. Currently, as we prepare to celebrate 100 years, we are undergoing strategic planning to map out what’s next for our future. 

Your church’s decision to adopt a new mission statement and logo in 2011 was itself a kind of sustainability initiative: Whether as individuals or as organizations, if we don’t assess ourselves and identify ways to improve, we remain stagnant. We risk being left behind. For example, at Webster University one of our most in-demand majors is in the biological sciences. With the growth of biotechnology and the St. Louis region’s growing “BioBelt,” biological sciences and research make for hot topics and a hot job market. That makes it a priority for many of our prospective and current students.

The tools our Biology students have in their labs are state-of-the-art, but the facilities are not. They still work in the lowest floors of Webster Hall – a nearly 100-year-old building – while learning about the latest scientific knowledge that this century has to offer. So we know that in order to serve the students who come to us, we need to provide better infrastructure. That is why our next new building on campus will be a new classroom and lab building focused on the sciences.

That building will go up next to the state-of-the-art East Academic Building, which we opened in 2012 in anticipation of increasing demand for business programs in a setting that would connect our students with classmates around the world. And when we designed the East Academic Building, we absolutely did so with an eye toward a sustainable future. From the windows, to the power management, to the rain garden outside, to the “green” roofs that are out of sight but are very much a part of the building’s footprint, the building is one of the region’s finest for sustainable design. We are proud to say it has achieved LEED Gold certification, one of only 31 buildings in the St. Louis region to achieve that distinction.

One of the signature and most visible features of the East Academic Building is the Anheuser-Busch Foundation Native Plant Rain Garden, pictured here when it was first planted…and now showing its growth over the past two years. The rain garden is a sustainable alternative for storm water management, capturing rainwater and filtering it via the native plants before it is returned to the groundwater. The natural process keeps contaminated rain water out of the storm water system and absorbs rainwater runoff.

And just a short walk from the rain garden is another exciting water management project, the result of faculty, students and community partners coming together: Over the past three years, more than 300 man hours from staff, students, faculty and community partners has turned what was once a simple retention pond -- required by the Missouri Sewer District -- into a thriving ecosystem for biological study and native plant rehabilitation.

Located between the railroad tracks, our parking garage on Garden Avenue, and the Opera Theatre offices, the Native Plant Natural Area is a bio-retention basin designed to collect and filter storm water from campus and the surrounding area, enabling native plants, butterflies, frogs and other life to flourish. As another “sense of place” setting on campus, this area now serve as a living laboratory for our biology students, as well as a quiet place for reflection for community members.

While the Rain Garden is tied to our newest building on campus, it is our oldest buildings that are part of our latest sustainability project: The installation of solar panels on six different buildings on campus, including Webster Hall and Loretto Hall, our two oldest structures. The solar panels are expected to produce electricity to power more than 17 homes and save the University nearly $900,000 in energy costs during the next 25 years. We believe this project is the largest solar panel installation at any University in the St. Louis area. We are excited about this latest measure, and it is a thrill to see our iconic building get a 21st-century enhancement like this.

I wonder if the Sisters of Loretto who laid the cornerstone for Loretto Hall would’ve imagined that in 100 years there would be solar power on its roofs. Of course, knowing the pioneering spirit of those women, maybe they did!

That is a snapshot of what’s new at Webster University. I hope you learned something new, and I hope you consider taking advantage of some of our offerings. Maybe this prompts you to conceive of a new way to partner with us on a community initiative.

As I mentioned earlier, we are preparing to celebrate our centennial in 2014-15, which will include a year of exciting events and opportunities to engage the local community. For us, it is a chance to look back at 100 years that forged our identity. But it is also a moment to recognize where we are in time, and consider “what’s next” in our future – and what steps we must take to be a sustainable, thriving part of this community for the next 100 years. On behalf of our students, our alumni, and our faculty who are proud to call this community home, I thank you for having me here today.

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