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Courtney Schmitt was among the Webster University students protesting on the Webster Groves campus on Tuesday, Nov. 16. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

A group of Webster University students has a question for the administration: “Webster, where is the money going?”

Members of the student-run group Dear Webster and its supporters were on campus Tuesday morning, Nov. 16, protesting what they call a misuse of tuition money. Among the group’s concerns are a lack of transparency for how Webster University has spent COVID relief funding, and a reduction in benefits for some students and staff.

Dear Webster was started earlier this semester following a petition spearheaded by Kieron Kessler, a senior studying international human rights. The Change.org petition demands the return of some benefits which were recently cut, as well as a detailed description of how COVID relief funding is being spent. At press time, the petition had garnered over 600 signatures.

“After I saw that so many people were passionate about the issues presented, I thought we could really take this somewhere and create something positive on campus,” said Kessler, who organized the Dear Webster group. “The goal here is to take this campaign into a Student Union, one that involves all students of all majors, that monitors the university of behalf of the students and staff.”

Kessler claims the university dropped the ball when communicating benefit changes to students, which included removing Adobe product access for students off-campus, as well as removing a $100 meal credit for commuting students. Following student outrage, Webster University reintroduced the meal plan, but limited the opportunity to just 125 students on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The reduction in benefits was communicated to students in a monthly newsletter. Kessler said the newsletter often goes straight to spam folders, meaning many students arrived on campus this semester unaware of the changes. Kessler added that some benefits were also cut for the school’s janitorial staff.

A statement from Webster University asserts the decisions were made for practical reasons.

“With the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn, the university assessed programs and services, collected sound data and made decisions that are in the best interest of our students and the institution,” the university said in a statement to the Times. “As a result, new programs to support students were introduced, such as the two-year tuition freeze, increases in scholarships and grants, and expanded services through university departments.”

While Kessler’s petition argues that the university has not been transparent with how COVID relief funding has been used, the university’s statement argues the inverse.

“Webster University has distributed the Congressional HEERF relief funds in accord with all federal regulations. The university’s distribution was double-checked by external auditors. Those reports are public through the U.S. Government’s website,” the statement said.

Kessler, however, isn’t satisfied with the information contained in the university’s most recent quarterly financial report and said attempts to speak to administrators have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

“The university has remained pretty much silent. That’s a huge reason why we feel the need to demonstrate,” said Kessler. “This is a time to make the university listen to us, see us and recognize their students are in distress.”

Dear Webster will hold a sit-in at the campus’ University Center on Nov. 30, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., to continue drawing attention to  its demands.