May 5, 2012
President Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble
Good morning, graduates, friends and family of graduates, faculty and staff. ,And of course Chief Executive Aldwyn Cooper – it was a pleasure to have you at our commencement in St. Louis last year, and we are delighted to be here to share this moment with all of you assembled here today.
Members of the Class of 2012, you will hear this many times today, but let me be one of the first: Congratulations! It is because of your achievements that we hold this special ceremony, and certainly you have earned every cheer you receive today.
Today’s ceremony is about honoring what you have accomplished by earning your degree, but in many ways it is also about what you will do with this accomplishment, how you will seize opportunities when they arise, and how you will face challenges and overcome fears.
In that vein, I would like to recall a fellow Webster student, a fellow Webster alumna who came before you and became a model of leadership in the face of adversity.
All of you who have come to London today from elsewhere in the U.K. and around the world may not know that Webster University was founded as a small women’s college in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1915. This was a time and a place in the United States when higher education for women was scarce.
In fact, Webster was the first to make higher education available to women in St. Louis when the Sisters of Loretto, a newly-founded American order of nuns struck out from their native Kentucky to begin their mission of fulfilling unmet educational needs. Not only was higher education scarce at that time, the available options focused on a finishing school education rather than preparing women for careers. It was this focus that also set the college apart during these early years in St. Louis.
With that pioneering spirit came challenges, and there came a time in the 1960s when the then-Webster College faced extraordinary challenges to sustain its academic independence in the wake of Vatican II reforms and the social and political turbulence of the times. The economic viability of women’s religious colleges was threatened, and Webster College appeared to be on the verge of extinction.
It would take an exceptional leader with courage and conviction to take the bold steps necessary to ensure the future of the school, and that leader started out as a Webster student just like you.
Her name was Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, known as Sister Jacqueline at the time.
Faced with the possibility of the demise of Webster College, “Sister J” as they called her determined that it was time to transfer ownership of the College from the Catholic Church to a self-perpetuating lay board of trustees.
In fact, soon after, she also announced her personal decision to request dispensation from her religious vows.
Webster needed a strong leader who galvanized those around her to make the tough decisions necessary for the college to continue to be competitive and relevant.
She once said of her bold moves, “I didn’t know enough to be afraid.”
On those fearless shoulders stood the future of this great institution.
And how grateful we are for her leadership so many years ago, as it still impacts us here today.
She anticipated the needs of an institution of higher education many decades ahead of her time: Sister J focused the Webster community on what she called the “three great drives of this century: internationalism, integration, and ecumenism.” She anticipated the increasing exchange of people and ideas across borders, disciplines and cultures in the world to come, and she knew that to remain relevant Webster would have to prepare its students for these trends.
In order to do this, Webster had to remain vibrant and responsive to students’ needs and able to adapt to what was happening in the larger world. Webster would have to embrace innovation and change.
As she wrote in 1969:
“We live in an age of intense probing, probing not in a self-containing world, but in an ecumenical world of search, a search involving the insights and problems of persons from all fields, all races, and all faiths. At Webster college we are in the business of educating students who can live in and contribute to such a world. We believe they must be educated in that world.”
Happily, that mission and those values are still what drive us in this century. They are fundamental to Webster’s strength and vibrancy. They are the foundation for Webster’s 25 years in London and 17 years of this wonderful partnership with Regent’s College London.
And here we are today. Webster University ⎯ the only Tier 1, private, nonprofit university with campus locations around the world including metropolitan, military, online and corporate, as well as American-style traditional campuses in North America.
Jacqueline passed away a few months ago and, as you can imagine, many faculty, staff alumni, and friends were recalling their stories of Sister J’s impact on their lives.
They used words like teacher, dynamic, charismatic, loyal, wise, listener, passionate, decisive, articulate, courageous, and chutzpah to describe her. They remember her as Life Magazine called her back in the 1960s: “a woman who could run U.S. Steel as easily as a college.”
William F. Woo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said of her, “She has a mind that works something like a combination of an IBM computer and a fox terrier.”
Forty, fifty years later we are still talking about her impact. We are living the fruits of her prescient emphasis on internationalism, integration and ecumenism. In a way, it is because of her that all of us can gather here today.
I tell her story not simply because it was critical to the story of your institution, Webster University, and how it arrived in London 25 years ago. I tell her story because she was a fearless leader and inquisitive Webster graduate just like you.
Like Lynette Larson, the first Webster graduate from a London campus in spring 1987. A Webster Groves theatre student on a London internship, she graduated here in the basement of the Goring Hotel.
So I congratulate you fellow Webster University and Regents College graduates on your accomplishment and the fine tradition it reflects. And I encourage you to do as Sister J did: Find your own courage, seize your own strength, follow your own insight to tackle the challenges of your day and contribute to this world.
And forty, fifty years from now, may your successors look back with admiration that you did.