Webster University comes under the leadership of 36-year veteran teacher,
|Neil George, interim president of Webster University, has been part of the university’s continued growth since joining the faculty in 1972.
photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)|
July 04, 2008Neil George is enjoying his stint as interim president of Webster University (W.U.), just as he has the other positions he has relished since joining the school some 36 years ago.
In his easygoing manner, George, 67, recently talked about his many years at W.U. — his focus was less on himself and more on the university to which he has dedicated most of his career.
New Professor On Campus
In 1972, George brought his wife, Tozia, and then two small children from the East Coast to Webster Groves to become a political science professor at then Webster College.
"We spent a week motel camping on the Meramec River nearby and spent a week walking around Webster Groves and walking around the campus," George said of the time leading to his decision to join the college faculty. "We thought Webster Groves would be a great neighborhood. And, I fell in love with the university – a college at the time." After raising their four children in Webster Groves, the couple downsized to a smaller home in Glendale about seven years ago.
Before coming to W.U., George taught at King's College and the State University of New York at Geneseo, N.Y.
"When I came (to W.U.) I really thought I was kind of set in my ways," George said.
Two years after his arrival, George was elected chair of the history-political science department. Later promotions included chair of faculty, dean of the undergraduate college and university academic dean, then executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs.
However, he quickly advanced through the ranks and in February 2008, outgoing president Richard Meyers and the university board handpicked George to be interim president until a new president is hired for the 2009-2010 school year.
George is modest about his successes, noting he never imagined he would be a college president.
"I didn't think I'd be chair of the department," George laughed. "When I was in (King's) college I was going to go to law school."
He said a recruiter came to King's from the Boston College Law School.
"I remember telling one of my professors that I wanted to go to law school. He said 'I always thought you'd be a professor,'" George recalled.
Instead of a law degree, George got a master's in international relations at Georgetown University and returned to King's as a professor. George also has a PhD from Case Western Reserve University in political science and postdoctoral studies from Harvard University's Institute for Educational Management.
"It's amazing the different people who reach out to help you along the way and you never realize how significant they are," George said. "That's what's replicated at Webster again and again. That's what appealed to me about Webster."
"I've been enjoying being at Webster since the day I came. I surprise myself in that I enjoyed each new position and opportunity more than I expected," he said.
The position of president surprised him most of all, he said.
"I'm enjoying it while I have it."
As George talks about W.U., it is evident he has not lost his commitment to the school.
"One of the things I liked about Webster University then, and I still like today, is its sense of community that exists and its mission and philosophy to try to make a difference in people's lives," George said.
|“One of the things I liked about Webster University then, and I still like today, is its sense of community that exists and its mission and philosophy to try to make a difference in people’s lives.”
— Neil George, President of Webster University (click for larger version)|
Webster University has undergone significant changes since George joined its faculty. In 1972, then Webster College had about 800 students. In 1978, it opened its first international campus in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1983 Webster College became Webster University. Today, W.U. boasts 7,500 students enrolled in its St. Louis area campuses, and a total of 20,000 students worldwide. W.U. has eight international campuses including Thailand and China.
Throughout the years the school's original mission remains intact, George said.
"We try to reach out and to respond to some of the unmet academic needs," he said, whether in St. Louis or around the globe.
The Sisters of Loretto founded the college in 1915 to meet the educational needs of women. Filling an unmet academic need W.U. has expanded globally while imparting an international perspective throughout its campuses.
Forty percent of W.U. freshman will study in at least one additional country before completing their bachelor's degree, compared to the national average of 1 percent at other accredited universities.
"We will not be satisfied until 100 percent of our student body have an international immersion abroad," George said. He said W.U. is working to reduce the impediments to studying abroad.
"Several years ago we adopted an initiative where we provide a free plane ticket to each of our undergraduate students to study at an international campus," he said.
But even those who don't study abroad will find international perspectives taught in W.U. classrooms, George said.
"We're increasingly trying to make each of our campuses global in scope and responsibility," George said.
W.U. is also launching a global MA in international relations and a global MBA.
George boasts that W.U.'s Geneva campus, the school's flagship international campus, will celebrate its 30th anniversary in September. The university's board of trustees plans to hold its first international board meeting in Geneva.
"When I see the increasing realization of our global mission that's pretty significant," George said.
Growth In Webster Groves
George is also proud of the growth of the Webster Groves campus.
"Our campus was restricted to a few buildings 30 years ago," George said. A new University Center was completed in 1992, and a new, state-of-the-art library opened five years ago.
W.U. also has experienced phenomenal growth in its student enrollment.
"We've had significant growth of undergraduate traditional-age population here but we've also witnessed significant growth of our part-time working adults, particularly doing graduate study," George said.
He added that technology has allowed W.U. to augment the classroom experience with online education.
George said the university has benefited from being a good partner with the city of Webster Groves, and that the city has come to see the benefits of being a partner with the university.
"I think the two have grown to work very closely together," he said.
Spotlight On George
While George prefers the spotlight be directed at the university itself, long-time colleagues gladly highlight George's role in W.U.'s success.
"In the 1980s, there were those who believed Webster's future, except maybe in the arts, was exclusively graduate education, but Neil always believed that we could be a top-notch undergraduate institution as well," said Daniel Hellinger, professor of political science and global director of the MA in international relations. "Neil is also clearly one of the key institutional leaders who carved out a niche for Webster in international education.
"When Webster opened its first campus in Geneva, Neil, as chair of our department, insisted that we offer graduate and undergraduate international relations, so that we would not become almost exclusively a business school," Hellinger continued.
Mike Salevouris, professor in the department of history, political and international relations said George has "worked very hard to make W.U. a more diverse, better-rounded university.
"But more importantly, Neil is an incredibly personable individual who is an inexhaustible source of new ideas. For example, when he was in our department, he started the Jefferson City legislative internship program and was a key person in creating Webster University's legal studies program," Salevouris said.
Colleagues agree with the decision that made George interim president.
"I think he was the perfect choice to lead us through this two-year interim," Music Professor Steve Schenkel said.
He recounted a recent breakfast meeting in which George asked various faculty, staff and administrators to voice their concerns about the university.
"Neil was there to listen, and I felt very 'heard' when it was over. I think that level of access to a university president is rare, and I really appreciated the time he spent with us," Schenkel said.
"He brings much strength to the position of Webster's interim president," said Math Professor Anna-Barbara Sakurai. "As a political scientist he knows how to be 'political.' He is gracious and outgoing He has a great love for Webster University and has dedicated most of his adult life to making Webster a stronger academic institution."
George said he has no definite plans after his tenure as president expires.
"My intention is to assist in this transition and then go on with the next phase of my life – whatever that might be," George said.
"It's genuinely been an extraordinary team of people who have driven Webster and helped make it so successful," George said. "I see my initiatives right now as part of this team of helping to move our strategic plan forward."