The Interview USA
University of Utah
Vice President for Student Affairs

Lori McDonald

As the pace of university life quickens, students find themselves navigating a constant barrage of responsibilities and all the challenges that come with them. As the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Utah, Lori McDonald has emphasized the need for adaptability and empathy in response to students’ ever-changing needs.

Co-Host of the Interview Max Webber sat down with Lori to discuss topics ranging from fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from diverse backgrounds to the challenge of encouraging dialogue across diverse viewpoints while respecting the right to free expression. 

Lori's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your organization…

My name is Lori McDonald and I’m the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Utah. We are a public research institution located in Salt Lake City. I’ve worked here for 27 years now. I hold two degrees: a bachelor's in Biology from the University of Utah and a Master's in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Ohio State University. I ended up working here in Utah and completed a Ph.D. in Education, Leadership, and Policy. As an undergraduate, I became a student leader and got involved in a number of initiatives. That was my introduction to student affairs. I also had a wonderful mentor who told me to think about getting involved in college administration – that’s how I ended up working in this field.

Max: What’s your approach to fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging for students of all backgrounds?

It’s a complex question, and we’ve been striving for a solution for a long time. As administrators, we’re obsessed with finding that “secret sauce.” For me, part of the key is having interactions with students from all different backgrounds and the whole community of the campus. It’s all about building connections. Students need an outlet outside of the classroom to help them socialize and make friends – that really makes them feel at home. They can also find a connection with an academic mentor or advisor, or even through a job on campus. To create that sense of belonging, people need to feel a connection, but they also need to feel valued – so we need to create opportunities for students to find that sense of connection.

Max: How do you make sure that your key messages about inclusive behaviors get across to your student body?

We’re fortunate to have some creative, thoughtful, and caring staff and faculty who come up with the most brilliant ideas. I'm usually the facilitator, working in the background, building up teams of people to improve or amplify things. I’m lucky to reap the benefits of all these great minds. One aspect that has really resonated with me over my career is that there is no one way to do things – the key is thinking with variety. So we try to approach students through different avenues. For example, we have these large, celebratory pillar events on campus to bring people together and encourage smaller programs throughout the year. We also place an emphasis on providing excellent advising and mentoring programs. We’re always asking the question, “What can we do to improve inclusivity?”

We understand that there isn't one way to think about inclusion – acknowledging that we also need to think about ways of breaking down barriers. Students are facing a lot of challenges: financial pressures, world events, and emotional and personal issues that have an impact on their well-being. So we need to think about how we adapt and keep providing those extra resources that can help students succeed. Our goal isn’t just to help you get a diploma; it’s to prepare you to go out into the world.

Max: How can we encourage students to engage in dialogue across difference?

It’s so, so important. We tend to frame this as an issue of expression. In the United States, we have to be very deliberate about protecting everyone's right to express themselves, share their viewpoints, and be able to exercise their speech in demonstrations and gatherings. Ultimately, we need to respect everyone’s right to do that. But when it comes to speaking across difference, we need to think carefully about how to approach these vastly different philosophies, and we haven't gotten there yet. Part of free speech is being able to deal with conflict. And by conflict, I don’t mean violence, but being exposed to viewpoints that we inherently oppose. When that happens, we should evaluate our thoughts and think carefully about articulating them. In higher education, we haven’t done the best job of doing that, but the first step is learning to listen. Communicating across difference can be emotional, and we need to acknowledge that while also thinking about how to do that in a respectful way.

Max: Students these days are busier than ever. How can we help them find the time to get involved in these kinds of initiatives?

I thought I was busy – then I see our students’ schedules! These days, there are just so many more things to do and things to know. I am in awe of how students get through it. The key to reaching them is to be constantly adapting to their needs. That involves us learning how to use technology, whether that’s using social media or text messaging. But sometimes, we can get so concentrated on technology that we forget the language. Keeping up with current, relevant terminology is also important. We are also designing surveys for our incoming students because we want to learn what their interests are before they arrive on campus. And then we can plan in a more proactive way. We need to always be checking in with students to find out how they are doing and what they need to feel supported.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

You can never make everyone happy. Learn to accept that. As a leader, sometimes you need to make decisions that people will disagree with. But those decisions are easier when you have a multitude of perspectives around you. 

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Max Webber
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