The Interview USA
University of Montana
Vice Provost for Student Success and Campus Life

Leslie Webb

With Higher Education (HE) institutions growing their programs, and challenges facing students constantly evolving, Student Services need to consistently adapt to ensure they’re engaging and communicating with students in an effective way. For Leslie Webb, Vice Provost for Student Success and Campus Life at the University of Montana, it’s all about listening to students and meeting their needs. 

In conversation with The Interview’s Co-Host, Luke James, Leslie shares how Student Services at the University of Montana creates and curates opportunities for students to have their voices heard. 

Leslie's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with an introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m Leslie Webb, the Vice Provost for Student Success and Campus Life at the University of Montana. I’ve been in HE for more than 25 years in a variety of roles, from Housing and Residence Life to Assessment and Planning to Equity and Inclusion. A year and a half ago, I came to work at the University of Montana because the institution’s dedication to inclusive prosperity, and the focus on ensuring our 10,000 students have the skills and knowledge to succeed in work and life aligns perfectly with my values.

Luke: What brought you to the world of Student Services?

When I got to college, I spent a lot of time socializing and having a fantastic time, but I got a 1.9 GPA in the first quarter. A Living Group Advisor intervened and encouraged me to focus on other aspects of my undergraduate experience and to essentially figure out my purpose for being there. I spent the next four and a half years working as a Living Group Advisor, a games room manager, an information desk attendant, and a student government representative.  At the end of it all, I realized that I loved what I was doing in all these part-time jobs more than I loved being on the stage (I was a theatre major), so I went down the Student Services pathway instead.

Luke: How do you support student wellbeing on campus? 

The challenges students face today are far more complex than a decade ago, so we need to evolve according to the shifts taking place in our communities. The best way to do that is through students who are willing to be part of a healthy, vibrant, positive community, and take part in peer-to-peer engagement. Our wellness department runs a program of wellbeing coordinators who are tuned into the culture and climate of our campus, and they’re embedded throughout the academic colleges to normalize and support everyday sub-clinical challenges for other students. We also emphasize reporting processes to our students and staff, so we can find out about issues early, and help individuals navigate whatever they might be going through.

Luke: How do you go about engaging students with your initiatives? 

We’re the number one campus in the US for community engagement, but we know that students may not have the time to take part in volunteering roles and peer-to-peer initiatives. When students are invited to engage in this work, we need to make sure they’re clear about the commitment required, that they understand expectations, and that they’re paid for their labor when possible. When students make the connection between their own challenges and the challenges of their peers, they’re more willing to participate in the process of institutional change. Frankly, they are THE experts of the student experience. Listen loudly. 

Luke: How do you go about creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students? 

We need to make sure that students with minoritized identities, first-generation, transfer, and non-traditional, and veteran students can feel a part of something. We look at it through a lens of understanding their needs, but we also pay attention to how nurturing those smaller communities has an impact on our wider student population. For example, every year since 1917 our forestry students have hosted the Forresters’ Ball, but it’s not just the forestry community who attend – it’s open to the whole student body. So, while we nurture those small communities for students to connect with others of similar identities, they’re also able to mix, mingle, and be part of something bigger and meet folks unlike them. 

Luke: How do you promote constructive conversation among students? 

I’ve found that students are apprehensive about administrative personnel leading difficult conversations. I recently reached out to some students who were on edge about new legislation in the region, and they thought I was going to shut them down because they’d never had anyone from “admin” come to just listen. Because of this, I spend a lot of time going to events and listening to students so we can humanize the institution’s “admin”, and give students the necessary opportunities to lead these conversations. This month we’re hosting a participatory Democracy Summit to help students create dialogue across difference, not just at the University of Montana but as they move out into their communities.

Luke: How do you best keep your teams open to evolution? 

Students, and what what they bring to campus have changed significantly in the last few years, and we (faculty and staff) need to understand these changes so we can best to respond to and support them. We’re hiring a faculty fellow to help communicate how our students have changed, current issues students are facing, and how they might evolve their classrooms to flex to the needs of today. Faculty are key to student success and we have a responsibility to share relevant research relating to the student of today. The teams I support are in the process of critically examining how their work, whether service or programmatic, correlates to student success, retention, and post-graduate outcomes. They feel a sense of urgency and are paying attention to the national narratives about the value of higher education and can demonstrate, in myriad ways, their contributions. 

Luke: What have you found is the best way to communicate with students? 

Peer-to-peer communication is likely most effective. Student leaders and ambassadors carry messages to their constituents far more effectively than I can. This is a hard nut to crack because students both want communication but don’t want it via certain channels. For me, being connected to students, in their communities and affinity groups, helps me to keep my finger on the student pulse.

Luke: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career?

Practitioner advice – Don’t surprise your boss. We are not independent contractors and do not get to speak out in front of the institution. And this nugget is more relevant today than ever before. I’ve embodied this stance from a dear colleague. Jeremiah Shinn, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrolment Management at Boise State, regularly says ‘Do less, better.’ HE institutions need to think about what they do, who they are serving and ensure we are relevant and connected to what our communities need. As we’ve shifted over time, we’ve held onto a lot of programs and services. We need to evaluate our efficiency and effectiveness, and amidst decreasing budget and constrained resources, we need to figure out how to do less and do it better. Thank you, Dr. Shinn!

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