April 2, 2020

How the city, Webster University and a citizen organization failed us all

For some time now, I’ve been a reporter on this newspaper. And I’ve written mostly news. Much of that news concerned the city of Webster Groves, as well as the administration of Webster University. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any subject, and there are probably libraries of information I’ve not been privy to.

But by my own calculations I have attended 45-plus hours of Webster Groves City Council meetings as a reporter.

It is no secret, even among journalists, that the whole truth cannot be told in a prototypical news story, written by even the finest reporter. To convey what happened in the most truthful way would require a style contrary to acceptable, professional journalism.

I won’t be reporting on Webster Groves or the university anymore, because in a few days I’ll be graduating. Deductions, feelings and assumptions have no place in the news.  But here, firmly labeled as an opinion, these things can be stated plainly.

When negotiating the precise nature of Webster University’s future in the city, tensions were high. In meetings that concerned the residents for Webster Groves and Eden Seminary, a lack of proper decorum between parties occurred and misleading or misguided statements were made.
The “Residents FOR Webster Groves” (RWG) organization has long contended the university to be an unwelcome entity in the city. They claim it is expanding without repute and altering the neighborhood in alien ways.

The university remains the single largest taxpayer in the city and a business operating numerous resources available to the public. However, RWG has long resigned to false or misleading statements and a general attitude of contempt when dealing with any representatives of the university. Whether it was a student reporter or a respected and ranking member of the upper administration, RWG rarely reciprocated the basic courtesy often afforded to them by other parties involved.

The university has purchased and demolished homes in the past. The purchases were made in an effort to expand its size and thus its capabilities as an educational institute and a private entity. This can’t be denied.

But when one school wants to build a science building on another school’s property, this is not the symptom of an obtuse, ballooning university.

Webster University serves a noble purpose, even if it is sometimes lacking nobility in its maneuverings.

The school has shown it wishes to acquire money at the expense of educational quality. When rules increasing the minimum, acceptable class size for highly specialized courses are introduced against the will of the educators, money wins over educational quality. The quality of education suffers and the goal of the university is lost when administrators conspire to silence or punish faculty, staff and students that question, challenge or publicly acknowledge administrative wrongdoings.

In spite of these errors in judgment and protocol, the university ultimately does better both financially and scholastically when it excels in quality of all kinds. Yet, the university masked specifics and evaded precise commitments. The university does this either by design to cloud their intentions or by way of simple ineptitude, neither of which should be tolerated.

The city of Webster Groves, in seeking to make itself arbiter of the relationship between Eden and the university, sought power it did not need in order to constrain — and ultimately control — the discussions and decisions made by the two institutions.

The city did not place greater restrictions on development, land sales and property uses out of malice. Pressure from constituents and members of the council more wary to Webster University’s development created laws, ordinances and dynamics allowing the city to be the necessary entity in a matter ultimately better left to two private educational institutions.

Government is slow and deliberative by design. It ultimately hinders a relationship that is historically proven to be beneficial to all parties.
The downsizing of Eden, the power of city zoning laws and the future of a world-class university — all matters of importance  — would not be deep in quagmire had all parties behaved in manners more worthy of their stature.

If the RWG allowed cooler heads to prevail and sought more reasoned rhetoric and strategies. If the university remained more dedicated to education at its highest levels over profit and didn’t obfuscate their plans either by design or error. If the city had resisted the urge to reach deep into a matter that it could — but by no rights should — regulate.

We, the people of Webster Groves, the students of Webster University and the students of Eden Seminary, should not accept such failures when so much is at stake. Changes will come. But who will make the changes, and what will their intentions be? Perhaps it’s time the aforementioned “we” challenge the status quo on our status and our future.

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