“What is Webster?”
To some, the answer to this question seems obvious: It is an institution of higher education. The second-layer response to this inquiry may bring up other considerations — a global institution with campus locations spanning from Europe to Africa, boasting an enviable student-to-faculty ratio and a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Lest we forget the progressive Sisters of Loretto, who founded the university in 1915 as one of the first Catholic women’s colleges west of the Mississippi.
But the accolades fail to account for the university’s grave issues of late. In September, the university was sued for allegedly failing to pay rent on its downtown St. Louis campus. Webster ended the 2022 fiscal year with $30.6 million in operating losses, according to Higher Ed Dive. This, while university leaders Beth Stroble and Julian Schuster received substantial pay raises that put them among the region’s highest-paid university executives.
The student and faculty body came together in a powerful show of unity. In one day, the Quad was lit up with a pulsing student-led protest urging financial transparency and responsibility from university leadership, and mere hours later, the Faculty Assembly returned a vote of no confidence in Stroble and Schuster.
When it comes to financial strife for private, nonprofit colleges, Webster is not in the minority. Private universities rely on endowments and tuition, and it has been a challenge to recover in the aftermath of a global pandemic, as well as a pre-existing decline in college enrollment nationwide. The impending dip in enrollment caused by the 2008 recession is forecasted for 2025 to 2026, and is likely to provide little relief.
Though the outlook seems grim, there is a trend of change: This fall, Webster saw its largest spike in enrollment since 2017, a 27.1% increase from Fall 2022, according to university officials. The new year will also reveal a stark change in leadership, as Chancellor Stroble steps down on Dec. 31. A global search is underway to name her successor.
Following a period of immense turmoil and unrest at Webster in the past several months, understanding its identity is imperative to its survival.
Defining the identity of an entire university system seems an impossible task. Every individual who has been, is and will be a part of the Webster University community garners their own definition through personal experience and interaction with those around them. By examining the facets that make up Webster, the hope is to better understand the university’s true spirit — what it is and what it could be.
For this special edition, the Webster Journal team sought to uncover the bits and pieces that — united — build an honest narrative of Webster’s collective identity. This edition weaves from past to present, and from present to the future. It explores the century-old mission the university was founded upon and questions the task at hand for the university today.