Webster University Geneva director retires, reflects on international life


Robert Spencer will retire at the end of this school year, after serving as the director of Webster University’s Geneva campus for 18 years. Spencer, 71, has lived abroad for almost two decades. However, the idea of living an international life first appealed to Spencer when he was a child.

“This desire for an international life started at our dinner table in Pittsburgh in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Spencer said.

Robert Spencer

Spencer said his parents were members of the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors. So they would have visitors from France, Nigeria and other countries come for dinner.

“I thought it was fun,” Spencer said.  “It was time to meet people who speak different languages and come from different places. I just got lit by it at a very early age.”

Spencer took French in grade school. He especially enjoyed when visitors spoke French so he could practice what he was learning in school.

In September 1994, Webster University President Richard Meyers asked Spencer if he wanted to remain in the position he held at Webster Groves home campus.

“I took a big risk there and said,’ You know what? No. I’m ready for a new challenge,’” Spencer said.

Meyers asked Spencer to describe his dream job. Spencer said he wanted to work at Webster Geneva.

About a year later, that opportunity presented itself.

Neil George, then-chancellor of Webster University, offered Spencer the position.

Spencer accepted the position and moved to Geneva in 1995. His wife followed about nine months later.

“I was eager to live a more international life,” Spencer said.

Robert Spencer’s wife, Anne Spencer, said she didn’t mind when he accepted the director position in Geneva. She said it was the perfect timing for them to leave St. Louis because their children were no longer living with them.

Impact in Geneva

Spencer said Webster Geneva’s master plan called for two new academic buildings. At the time, the campus needed the space for housing more than academics. He worked with the

government to change the use of the buildings to include student housing.

“It completely changed the nature of the campus,” Spencer said.

He said Arab families seemed more willing to send their daughters to Webster Geneva because the university provided on-campus housing.

Spencer said the housing problem was a big challenge at Geneva.

He said Webster Geneva used to get two-thirds of its enrollment from the Geneva area. After the university added on-campus housing, the number of non-Geneva students grew.

In 2004, the university rented apartments and part of a hotel. Now, Webster Geneva has 200 beds, about 50 of which are on campus.

The two women who run the dormitory put the name of the country each student is from on their dorm room doors.

“You walk down the hall and there’s Russia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, France, (United Kingdom) and it’s like everyone in the corridor is from a different country,” Spencer said. “You’re being educated in a place where everyone is a minority.”

‘Artifacts’ on home campus

Spencer worked on the development of Webster University’s Webster Groves home campus.  He was involved in fundraising to build Sverdrup Hall and the University Center (UC).

“(The fundraising position) was like pulling teeth (because) that was on-the-job training for me,” Spencer said.

Spencer said it makes him proud to have been a part of the campaigns that funded Sverdrup and the UC. He often thinks about how many people have benefited from those buildings.

When he is in St. Louis for meetings, Spencer reads the names on campus buildings and remembers the relationships he had with the donors.

Working Towards Swiss Accreditation in Geneva

Spencer said there has been more pressure for Webster Geneva to become accredited. He said, in Europe, universities are more interested in the research than in the teaching.

“We’ve had to figure out, ‘How do we keep our soul as Webster University and yet meet the criteria of the Swiss accreditors?’” Spencer said.

Spencer said the Geneva campus is building a full-time, research-oriented faculty, without losing the mission and values of Webster University.

Spencer said he hoped that if the university showed the Swiss government evidence Webster Geneva was moving in the right direction, they would accredit them. That wasn’t the case.

Spencer said Webster Geneva will not be accredited by the time he leaves. He said the accreditation has been the biggest academic challenge for him as director.

A new higher education law may change Swiss accreditation standards. This new law will require any institution that uses the word “university” to be Swiss accredited.

Spencer said he believes Webster Geneva can become accredited by 2018.

Maintaining an international life

Spencer said he has been to more than 30 countries.

“I’m still curious,” Spencer said. “ I have a whole list of places I want to go.”

Now that he is retiring, Spencer and his wife may maintain a residence and spend time in St. Louis again. He said he is looking forward to spending time with his children and grandchildren.

George remembers the couple of times over the years he convinced Spencer to not retire.

“I said, ‘Bob, you’re not retiring before I do,’” George said, laughing.

Spencer will stay on the Swiss Board for the Webster Geneva campus.

Julian Schuster, provost and senior vice president, asked Spencer to remain a member of Webster Geneva’s board.

Although he will still be involved, Spencer’s involvement will decrease significantly.

“I’ve run the course. I’m ready to stop. I’m very much at peace with myself on that,” Spencer said. “There are so few people these days who spend 40 years with one institution.”

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