Elizabeth Stroble, President, Webster University
There are a number of people who would argue that St. Louis’ slogan “Gateway to the West” could be updated to “Gateway to the World” — and Elizabeth Stroble, Ph.D., the newest president of Webster University, believes it more than most.
During the expansion of America, St. Louis was indeed a “Gateway to the West.”
“[Today,] I would say the slogan could be reversed as well; the world needs to see St. Louis as a gateway,” Stroble says.
As president, Stroble has been finding ways to continue to expand the institution’s presence globally in an effort to provide students with a more diverse curriculum that not only benefits them, but the businesses and communities that those students then work and live in.
Webster University is based in St. Louis, and has campuses in Geneva, Vienna, The Netherlands, London, China and Thailand. The college employs some 1,200 full-time faculty and staff members and has 21,000 students — 8,000 of them in St. Louis.
Stroble came to Webster in 2009, and with the university turning 100 in 2015, she has been evaluating where the college can grow and improve itself for the sake of its students, communities and business partners.
“What I learned since I arrived here was that Webster University has a tremendous history of being globally excellent with room to grow the global excellence,” Stroble says. “It’s highly innovative and entrepreneurial and its mission, going back to its founding, was to meet an unmet need.”
During the last four years, she has been assessing the university’s strengths and opportunities.
“The strengths and opportunities at Webster are to continue to connect the pieces and parts of that global network so that strength builds upon strength and that we stay connected, not only locally but globally,” Stroble says.
Here’s how Stroble is advancing the university’s strengths and opportunities.
Do a thorough assessment
Before coming to Webster University, Stroble was provost, senior vice president and COO at the University of Akron in Ohio. Wanting to find a presidency position, she came to Webster.
“The move to Webster University was about the presidency of an institution that’s local here in St. Louis but has a global reach and impact, and that was what was most interesting to me about it,” Stroble says.
With the school’s international footprint a big drawing factor, Stroble began to assess the university’s strengths and opportunities in that area and how Webster could benefit students, businesses and communities.
“I spent a great deal of time in the St. Louis community not only interacting with faculty, staff and students here but with local business and community leaders who have a global footprint in their own organizations and want to increase the global interaction in St. Louis, because that makes it a thriving community and a globally competitive community,” she says.
Stroble also began visiting every international location and many domestic locations of Webster University.
“Part of what fascinates me and continues to about Webster University is the diversity that comes from being located in different places,” she says. “While the location is different and the diversity of the students is different, the academic programs reflect local market needs.”
Taking that tour of various Webster campuses helped Stroble assess where the university could improve.
“You have to take plenty of time listening and asking for other people’s advice and counsel,” Stroble says. “One of my fundamental questions was, ‘What do you most hope that your new president will preserve about Webster University, and what do you most hope the new president will seek to change?’
“My sense in every organization is that there are these sacred traditions, values, habits and processes that people hope will continue. It’s always an assessment of whether you, as president or the new leader, will agree with those, but it’s important to know them.”
Stroble’s assessment left her with a sense that Webster University, like most organizations, had some ambition and pent-up hope and demand for change.
“If you don’t know what that is, you can’t help to fulfill the hopes and dreams that caused you to be the president who was selected,” she says. “That is an important learning opportunity, and you need to seize it to its fullest advantage, because when you’re new, it’s the greatest warning opportunity.
“Over time, it’s harder to see things with fresh eyes and … it’s hard to disabuse yourself of the notion that there might be better ways to do things.”
As an incoming leader of an organization, you have to take advantage of not knowing very much about the operation because you can ask the naive question and gain a lot of insight.
“Over the course of my presidency, it’s my role to listen to what’s going on in the external environment,” Stroble says.
For Webster University, that’s an external global environment and what’s happening in the world of higher education but also in the world of culture, diversity, politics, economics and the larger environment that we all live in and hope to shape.
“How do I learn about that and help to communicate that effectively to the university community so that we can truly not only be responsive but lead the change that the external environment wants?” she says.
“In turn, how do I learn well enough what the strengths are of Webster University so I communicate those well to an external environment to continue to attract students, high-quality employees, donors, external support, and local and global support partnerships?”
To help aid in that responsibility, Stroble has been investing in developing Webster’s talent around global diversity and knowledge and is focused on improving curriculum.
“We revised our general education curriculum to focus on global citizenship, and we have been building many more partnerships with international universities, especially in parts of the world where we are not,” she says. “That’s why it’s important for us to expand the campus footprint beyond Europe and Asia.”
Webster University wants to open global opportunities for its students and St. Louis businesses at the same time to bring an infusion of global talent to St. Louis and across the world.
“This focus on people, partnerships, curriculum and programs that help support student travel, more scholarship prospects for international students and raising our profile in terms of how well we communicate about the opportunities we can create at Webster University for businesses and other higher education institutions has been the work I have been doing,” Stroble says.
Develop global talent
True to Webster’s mission to fulfill a need, one of the institution’s goals is to build capacity in potential new geographies. These new international locations need to have a stable political environment, a stable and growing economy, and a need in that local community for American-style education taught in English in the degree programs Webster offers.
Globalization at Webster University is much more comprehensive than most other universities. Some even say that globalization is baked into the university’s DNA.
“It’s my job to help deepen this, broaden it, strengthen it, further it, but it certainly dates back to before I arrived,” Stroble says. “It was such a part of Webster University from its inception that we were ahead of the curve. Again, we’re an institution that prides itself on meeting a need and being entrepreneurial and naturally saw opportunities to do that outside of St. Louis well before it became cool to be global.”
Webster’s effort globally is much more about creating synergies and mutual benefit than it is about carrying the American message abroad.
“We’re much more about being truly global and figuring out how to live that through preparation of students, who we hire and how we think about the geography than we are about how we export an American education that might seek it,” she says.
While constantly looking at new international locations for the college, Stroble is also extremely focused on how that global diversity can benefit the local community in St. Louis.
“We have purposefully built a program with the state of Missouri called the Global Internship Experience that provides interns from international locations for companies here in St. Louis and sends Missouri students to international locations to do internships there,” she says. “We’ve been doing that for 25 to 30 years and it continues to expand.”
Another effort to broaden education and benefit businesses is the creation of a Confucius Institute.
“The point of a Confucius Institute is that you provide an arm for increasing knowledge of Chinese language and culture in your local community,” Stroble says. “Ours was founded in 2008, and it was the first in the state of Missouri. Our Confucius Institute provides resources to local businesses who seek to learn more about how to do business with the Chinese.”
This institute is a direct connection of Webster’s expertise and relationship with the Chinese Ministry of Education that opens up doors and opportunities for young people and businesses.
“It would be hard to know the world without knowing China,” she says.
All of these advancements to the global education of Webster’s students provide a platform for lifelong learning.
“It’s not only about the important topic of being a citizen of the world and seeing things in a large perspective or relating to people who have had experiences different from ours; it’s about creating an open point of view about learning, changing and responding to an environment that will continue to change,” Stroble says.
“If you learn how to navigate a different country, different language, a different culture, different politics, a different lifestyle, that positions you to learn about new technologies, new field development, new environmental challenges across your lifetime. You open up your world in more ways than globally.” ●
How to reach: Webster University, (800) 981-9801 or www.webster.edu
Listen and ask questions about the organization as a new leader.
Evaluate the organization’s strengths and opportunities.
Develop a presence to benefit stakeholders locally and globally.
The Stroble File
Elizabeth Stroble, Ph. D.
Born: New Castle, Wyo.
Education: She earned a degree in history and English from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. She has two masters of arts degrees, one in history and one in American and English literature, both from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. She received her doctorate in curriculum studies from the University of Virginia-Charlottesville.
Background: She spent time at Northern Arizona University-Flagstaff and University of Louisville-Kentucky. At University of Akron she was the dean of the College of Education and was promoted to provost, senior vice president and COO. She then sought a presidency and came to Webster University.
What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?
I was a waitress. I worked my way through college waitressing. Serving the hungry public teaches a lot about communication skills and being attentive to detail and being pleasant to interact with. I learned a lot about customer service.
What got you into education?
During my next-to-last term at Augustana, I was in the student teaching program. I had this spectacular student teaching assignment and after about the second or third day I decided this was my life.
Who is someone you’ve admired in the education world?
I worked for the chairman of the history department at Augustana, J. Iverne Dowie, and I looked up to him greatly because he had been blind since he was three years old. My job was to read books and papers out loud to him, and he and I would discuss what I had read. I admired his intellect and how gentle he was as an individual and how accomplished he was to be the department chair. A lot of what I learned about teaching and university work was from his direct example.
What are you looking forward to at Webster University?
I’m excited about this institution continuing to live that mission of setting a distinct standard for global education and preparing our students to be individually excellent and citizens of the globe.