Innovating Toward Reinvention: Reclaiming the Webster Way


The Sisters of Loretto established institutions to meet unmet needs. Webster College for example was founded to educate women, in a time when women’s higher education was socially unacceptable. The sisters had at their core a social service and social justice framework. In each era as, unmet education needs shifted the institution changed.

Webster College, later Webster University, would in the 1950’s become one of the first higher education institutions in the nation to willingly desegregate and admit African-Americans. In the 1980’s Webster University would educate military personnel and families on military bases. By the 1990’s Webster University was offering online education even when there were great national debates about the quality and viability of this distance learning modality.  

Today, our Webster University has grown to staggering heights. We have educated thousands of students and provided higher education opportunity to hundreds of people who otherwise would not have gotten it.

Even as we occupy an enviable place in meeting the educational needs of students and families on four continents, our competitors have learned from us. To them, meeting unmet educational needs have become financially lucrative. There are many other educational enterprises that regardless of the veracity of their claims; tout small classes, diversity and inclusion advances, study abroad experiences, military education offerings, global engagement and low tuition as hallmarks of their educational offerings.  

A changing higher education landscape has challenged the model of American higher education upon which Webster University is built. We have all become increasingly aware of the failure of many private education management companies and the universities they own or administered. Similarly, we are all painfully aware of the closure of a few historically black colleges and small liberal arts colleges. By all accounts ongoing competition, demographic shifts, the erosion of public trust in institutions, and questions about the value of a higher education will continue to define the context in which Webster University exists. In one estimate, Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring in their book, The Innovative University, estimate that some 50 percent of the 4000 colleges and universities in the US will go bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.

What then can we as an institution do to maintain vitality and thrive in this very hostile context? Primarily, we should look to our core values. Seek to fulfill the unmet education needs. If we learn anything from our past it ought to be that when Webster looks towards meeting the needs of students and families – we thrive. History records the emergence of Webster College from a small Saint Louis based institution to an international university on four continents. We grew from 11,187 students in 1995 to 20,296 in 2005. So, what are today’s unmet needs and how do we know when we are getting close to meeting them?

  1. The cost of higher education: Students and their families are acutely aware of the cost of higher education. Wherever in the world we as an institution offer degrees, courses and credits, we know that price as well as value for money matters.   
  1. The perceived value of a college degree: Following the 2008 financial crisis the American public has become wary of the value-added of a college degree. People wonder whether the debt burden is worth it. And even if the curriculum does prepare students for a return on the investment.  
  1. An authentic critical education: We are all daily subject to the onslaught of “fake news” and “viral videos”. The “stuff” of a liberal education is published in the form of social media posts on Facebook, YouTube videos, Instagram posts, Snapchat videos and Twitter feeds. Learning to critique and interpret these is a critical need. Due to the ubiquity of media, communities and even national populations are highly vulnerable to media manipulation. A liberal education provides a critical differentiator in an increasingly technocratic, media manipulated world. This era requires a different kind of critical thinking and data analysis. An ability to “read the world” as well as to engage and critique multimedia messages are hallmarks of the 21st century liberal arts core.  

These then are the unmet needs. How can Webster meet these needs and remain viable as an institution? I wish to pose the opposite question: How can Webster not choose to meet these needs and still expect to maintain viability?  

Emerging Trends for the Webster Model
These ideas are not “silver bullets” nor or they one size fits all. They will be controversial in some places. But dialogue is the hallmark of a university.

  1. Eliminate the undergraduate flat fee and make it more lucrative to take summer courses. Our flat fee creates an incentive for our undergraduate students to take as many courses as they can each semester. Thus, they overload themselves and struggle to perform academically.  This context makes it difficult for students to routinely engage thoughtfully and deeply in subject matter learning.
  2. A corollary to this is that, one of our goals with our Global Citizenship Program (GCP) has been to increase high-impact practices for students. As an AACU institution, we know that there are certain signature experiences that are critical to the liberal arts curriculum that even students rate as highly important. Study abroad, undergraduate research and internships come to mind. If we are to continue the upward trend to strengthen our liberal arts core, these elements require more student engagement time.  
  3. Add a supplemental 4-week January term. If in general our students are to maintain a high level of academic excellence; time to process information, to study and interact with cognitively complex content and to collaborate with design projects is critical to their experience. Students could use this four-week term for study abroad or for deep learning in academic research projects.  
  4. Reduce the required hours for the bachelor’s degree from 128 hours to 100 hours. With an increasingly mobile and trans-national work population, there are emergent attempts to shorten time to acquire credentials such as undergraduate degrees. The primary goal being to enhance student mobility across countries and to offer modularized types of credentials, so students can learn new skills that are transferable across different industries. Since 1999 the European Union has been working toward “convergence and harmonization” of higher education academic requirements. One of the outgrowths of this process in Europe is the three-year bachelor’s degree program. Webster would not be alone in pursuing this direction, as of 2009, the Lumina foundation recently sponsored grants to normalize transcripts and higher education credentialing around the Bologna process. Furthermore, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education estimates that the typical US bachelor’s degree is 120 hours.  
  5. Simultaneous focus on relevant workforce content. Recent trends in online offerings are in the direction of smaller credentials such as certificates and micro-degree programs. Platforms like Coursera, Udemy and Udacity are collaborating with corporations and universities to create targeted credentials. Many of these “nanodegrees” are built on corporate partnerships with companies like Google, Amazon, AT&T and IBM. Webster University could learn from these trends to create add-on certificates that would be seen as value added offerings to the major. To be sure, we do have a number of certificates that we offer now – this new design would target these certificates around workforce and market-based needs.    
  6. Create a unique Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for the Global Citizenship Program (GCP). I have always believed that the GCP provides an interesting opportunity for Webster U students to engage globally. Imagine two courses called – The World of Webster I and II – that replace “the middle eight.” All Webster students who need these courses would be enrolled in the same course. Imagine a course with 200 students but with the unique Webster touch of multiple faculty members and staff members supporting each student. These courses would not be online courses built primarily around reading text and resource viewing. They would prioritize hands-on guidance from multiple faculty, engage with collaborative video conferencing and utilize teamwork. They would be bolstered by a number of on ground meeting sessions in a WebNet+ or face to face format.   Students would have the opportunity to engage with other Webster students and personnel across four continents. The current GCP framework would remain, except only three courses would be coded. With this configuration, GCP could go from 30 credit hours to 15. The curriculum of these courses would be defined around the same knowledge and skill areas as required by the GCP. The choice-making in the middle eight would disappear.

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