Webster University mourns the passing of former president Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, a visionary leader who helped transform then-Webster College into the university it is today.
Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, alumna and former charismatic president and visionary leader
Wexler, a former Sister of Loretto who remained a member of the wider Loretto Community and was known affectionately to her students and others as “J,” served as Webster’s president from 1965 to 1969. During her tenure, Wexler brought national attention to Webster for her pioneering spirit and for the changes she spearheaded at the school. The White House named her to a standing committee of education thought leaders, where she challenged peers as a catalyst for educating the underprivileged.
She was instrumental in the transfer of the school’s governance from the Sisters of Loretto to a lay board of trustees in 1967.
Transferring ownership of Webster College to a lay board was a significant decision for the College and another milestone in an impressive line of accomplishments for Wexler. Webster College was the first Catholic institution to recognize the potential for growth and the quality of education as a secular institution.
At Webster she emancipated the curriculum, raised funds to build the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, and developed innovative academic programs.
“I was privileged to have the opportunity to get to know Jacqueline on a personal level in 2004 when we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Master of Arts in Teaching program, which she established,” said School of Education Dean Brenda Fyfe. “I had asked her to be our featured speaker and honoree at this celebration. This was the start of several conversations and meetings that gave me first-hand insight into her incredible leadership, intellect, and passion for education.”
“When I came to Webster there was no Department of Education,” said Webster professor and friend of Wexler, Andrea Rothbart. “This was no accident. Jacqueline believed that the way to educate teachers was to have them become experts in the subjects they were to teach.”
Jacqueline Grennan Wexler in the early 1960s
After leaving Webster, she served as president of Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1970 to 1979, and was appointed president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1982 (now known as National Conference for Community and Justice). She also was the first woman elected to the board of directors of United Technologies Corp.
In 2004 the School of Education celebrated the 40th anniversary of the MAT program and Wexler returned to campus as the featured speaker.
“As part of the introduction to Jacqueline at the celebration, I read a letter sent to me from Jerome Bruner, a long-time admirer of Jacqueline and early consultant to the MAT program in the ‘60s,” said Fyfe. “He spoke of his work with her for a couple of years on a White House Committee established by President Kennedy. I want to share a few comments from the letter that speak to the high esteem she earned from nationally and internationally acclaimed scholars such as Bruner:
“Jacki, Sister J, was not only a catalyst in that group, but a source of steady continuity…We loved Sister J, but loving her meant taking our obligations to educational improvement seriously. That meant no light-weight stuff. Her spirit pervaded that Committee and, soon, enough, it began pervading the Washington educational scene.’”
Photo of Wexler from front cover of the Saturday Review, July 15, 1967
The seeds of change that Wexler planted have transformed Webster into a vastly different institution. The university has grown to become the only Tier 1, private, nonprofit university with more than 100 campuses across the United States, Europe and Asia.
An on-campus memorial ceremony celebrating her life was held on Feb. 8 with photographs, video interviews with those who worked with her and remembered her well, music by the Webster University Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Singers, and reflections and tributes from President Beth Stroble as well as Sanford Zimmerman, the first chair of lay Webster College Board of Directors, Sister Donna Day, representative of the Sisters of Loretto, and more.