Fall Convocation 2014

Good morning and welcome to this historic year for Webster University.

This is the year we will graduate our final class of our first century and, as a university community, enter our next. This time of year is always exhilarating, energizing, exhausting because we look forward to seeing each other and doing our very best with a fresh start that each year brings.

This year these feelings are heightened because we will together celebrate our centennial. When you consider the year ahead and that we will share this once-in-Webster’s-lifetime experience, how does that make you feel?  Take a moment and tell the person next to you.

I feel proud of what we are accomplishing at Webster and at the same time I am humbled and a bit awed to consider how this university has developed in its first hundred years.

As an undergrad, I developed a life-long love of people’s stories of time and place. When I first arrived at Webster, we assembled hundreds of Webster stories to reveal the unique ways that Webster has shaped generations of individuals at the same time they have shaped Webster. Recently we have gathered more, and you will find many of them on the Centennial website. Each of us has a Webster story, and this is a year to not only share our stories, but to create new ones as a foundation for the future. 

These Webster stories help me appreciate our amazing history and the enduring values that have guided and will guide our mission as we complete a new strategic plan during this academic year.

Many of you have been working on this strategic plan, and I’ll ask Julian to talk more about our progress later this morning. Many more of you have been planning and preparing for our centennial activities. What I have been doing to immerse myself in the Webster story is to read and re-read more of our history.

This summer I made my second trip to the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse to gain a better sense of our beginnings. My family and I spent the day at their archives, reading correspondence from those days in the late 1800s:

  • The Sisters, after educating young children on the frontiers of Kentucky for 100 years, expanded their mission to teach young women in dedicated academies in Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
  • As priests were urged to open their own parish schools, the Sisters responded by sending teachers and founding even more day schools as well as boarding academies.
  • A two-year Normal School was established at the Motherhouse to provide teacher training as it existed in those times. Thousands of young children were educated by the Lorettos in any given year.
  • The Loretto mission took a bold new turn when after purchasing this property in Webster Groves, and starting an academy (seminary) here, they made the decision to open a four-year senior college, built Webster Hall (for $250,000), and dedicated three Sisters to teach five willing students at what they founded as Loretto College.
  • They graduated the first class of two students in 1919, and here we are today, having graduated 184,000 in the past 100 years. 

We will have many opportunities this year to consider our roots as an institution and how we have developed into a truly global university, meeting a global need, because that is what the times demand of us.

Those who came before us, those intrepid women and men, faced the challenges of their time and place and persevered to meet the needs they identified and to build a university that exceeded all expectations through habits of conviction, discipline, courage, and resilience.

In recent years, we at Webster have honored those whose lives embodied a singular resilience—I think of Koko Tanimoto Kondo, Norbert Leo Butz, and Greg Gadsen—those who faced adversity and surfaced in ways that transformed them and all those they touch.

Resilience as a construct has been defined many ways in a variety of disciplines—varying from “system’s ability to absorb shocks,” “recovering and rebounding after a disaster,” “sustainability,” “facing uncertainties in ways that deal with adversity and overcome it,” “adaptation,” “engaged in a constant cycle of ruin and reinvention,” “built from manageable levels of stress and dependent upon strong, interconnected networks and a sense of belonging.” -Chronicle Review [May 10, 2013]

What is intriguing to me is to consider in what ways our Webster—celebrating 100 years—can build on a history of resilience to continue to thrive and transform ourselves in the next century. Looking at some historic observations about such matters is interesting, I think, and potentially helpful.

  • “The primary aim (of education) is not to make a good wife and mother any more than to make a good husband and father. The educational ideal is human perfection, perfect manhood, perfect womanhood.  Woman’s sphere lies wherever she can live nobly and do useful work.  The career open to ability applies to her not less than to man.  It is good to have a strong and enlightened mind; therefore it is good for woman to have such a mind.  It is always good to know a thing; therefore it is good for woman to know whatever she is capable of knowing.” -Bishop John Lancaster Spalding in 1900 (as quoted by Sister Mary Mangan in her history of our first 50 years.)
  • “Unlike most colleges and universities, Webster has not inaugurated a celebration of a Founders’ Day. Perhaps it has been a fortunate oversight.  I would speculate that those visionary ones who found an institution would be the first to ask that every day be Founders’ Day, that every generation be founding a new institution, an aggregate of elements reassembled and reordered to best meet and serve the problems and the promises of this day.” -Jacqueline Grennan Wexler (November 21, 1966, convocation talk)
  • “A part of the reason for Webster’s success is the way we conceive the society of the future and the function of education in it. The society is so complex it seems to me that degrees ought to self-destruct after 10 years, maybe five.  I conceive a society in which people will come back to a college or a university for second careers, or third careers, or fourth careers because of the rapidity of change we now face.” -Leigh Gerdine (October 6, 1974)
  • “Loretto did not emerge from an easy period of history.  Its roots are in the toil and energy and promise of a frontier where men and women died young. The church was built from the clay of a Kentucky swept by civil war, raked with cruel midnight raids by bands of irregulars, often no more than bandits turned loose by war. The history of Mother Berlindes Downs, who began this church and saw it completed, does not reveal a woman who could be easily beaten by any circumstance.” -Tom Oates (1980)
  • “I have felt too often our ‘strategic vision’ is based imbedded unrecognized assumptions resulting in extrapolation than in true strategic thinking. My hope is that in these discussions we can (to take an impressively fundamental phrase from Monte Throdahl) address the concept of Webster rather than the place of Webster. -Larry Browning, former trustee, chair, donor (1992)

Did those who came before us in previous decades of our founding and our growth and development face challenges? Yes

Did they run from issues of war, conflict, racial and gender inequality, economic depression, competition for faculty and students? No

What they did was assess and accept risks, live with deep uncertainty, pioneer new approaches, and steel themselves to question the status quo and create new institutions and structures that were more responsive to the increasingly diverse communities they were called to serve.

And so must we.

As Maggie Buggie writes, “Remember that it is all invented. Someone, somewhere, at some point in time has decided what you think is the status quo. So why not take a risk and make a better reality that is more resonant and compelling to a greater number of people. 

We need look no further than our greater St. Louis community to know that education will continue to face challenges to meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities. As many other institutions—universities will need to be clear about why they exist and act in ways that have integrity and resonance with their missions and their understanding of themselves.

I believe that at Webster University we have it within us to thrive in the most challenging of circumstances. We will do that by defining this moment in our time—this hundred-year-mark—with the creation of a new strategic plan that assures our global impact in the next century. We will do that by focusing on the aim of education now and in the future, founding anew the Webster that will achieve those aims, and embracing Webster University as a concept larger than a single place and time.

To talk more about these matters, I ask you to join me in welcoming our provost and chief operating officer, Dr. Julian Schuster.

Julian and I have had the opportunity of working together for four years now, today marking our 5th time to speak to the Webster University community for fall convocation. Each year we go back and forth about what tone to strike, what topics to focus on, and what we will challenge ourselves and you to do in the coming year.

We know that when we celebrate our successes and focus on our accomplishments the response is a happy one. When we highlight our need for greater teamwork to meet enrollment and financial challenges, the mood is more somber.

What we intend today is to strike the balance that should help all of commit anew with courage and the conviction that the place and concept we know as “Webster” will indeed thrive in its second century exactly because we know how to use adversity to our advantage.

No matter the circumstance—economic downturn, world war, epidemic, civil unrest, prejudice and bigotry—Webster has been brilliantly resilient. Let us in this centennial year, face with clear eyes the challenges facing higher education, our region, and our world, and then face the horizon with the hope and optimism that comes from knowing who we are and who we intend to be.

I want to close today by borrowing a motto created by the TAP program this summer. It is one of the happiest expressions I can use to convey our wish for this wonderful Webster community in the coming year: Keep Calm and Webster On

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