The man who was named the University of Montana’s new president Tuesday, Seth Bodnar, has packed a lot into his 38 years.
He’s a Rhodes Scholar with two master’s degrees from Oxford University who is currently an executive at General Electric. What’s more, he’s a West Point grad who also taught there and a former Green Beret.
Bodnar says he’ll bring a lot of skills and knowledge to Missoula when he’s inaugurated in January, “But I absolutely have a lot to learn,” he said.
He says he thinks the best leaders are relentless learners.
“I am looking forward to not just working with and not just listening to, but learning from a great team of deans, of faculty leaders, of staff leaders, of students, of alumni, of donors to lead the University of Montana to success,” he said.
Bodnar has no quick fix-all solutions for the budgeting and personnel challenges UM has faced since enrollment began declining in 2010. However, he thinks UM is uniquely positioned to attract and educate more students.
“Given its depth in the sciences and the humanities, a strong liberal arts foundation to provide exactly the type of integrative education that students need to be successful, lifelong learners,” he said.
Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian says Bodnar seems to have the right blend of leadership and vision to get UM back on track.
“I think everyone’s excited for a new day -- a new era -- at the University of Montana," he said. "Those that I’ve heard from really believe Seth appears to be the kind of individual that can bring some transformational leadership and really help us move the institution forward for the long run.”
Lee Banville is spokesman for the University Faculty Association. He says the union is optimistic and agrees with Christian that this could be a new era for UM.
"I think what will become really apparent very quickly is how deep is that commitment to being transparent about decision making," Banville said. "Will he start by tackling some of the budget issues the university faces by turning inward, or opening up the process and bringing more people to the table so these decisions can be made more in the open?"
Bodnar’s corporate background has some critics wondering if under his leadership, UM will emphasize student head count over a solid education. It, he vows, will not.
“Look, I want to be very clear that a university is not a business," he said. "It has a different mission. It has different form of governance. It has different constituencies and different ways in which it creates value.”
Others worry about a university president at a research institute who has not earned a doctorate.
But UM’s current president, Sheila Stearns, isn’t worried about that.
“I think he has clear academic credentials as a Rhodes Scholar who went to Oxford and who earned two masters,” she said.
Stearns explains why Bodnar chose not to parlay one of those masters degrees into a doctorate.
“Had he stayed an extra year to turn one of those masters into a Ph.D, it meant that he couldn’t have returned to his 101st Airborne and gone to Iraq with them. That was the choice he made. He said, ‘Sometimes I rethink that,’ but he said, ‘I know I did the right thing.' I think he has shown that he has every capability of being a star academically as well as in leadership,” she said.
Several important developments will unfold at UM over the next 13 weeks, including key state budget and program priority announcements.
Stearns, who’s served as UM’s interim president since January, says she’s ready for the – as she puts it – fourth-quarter challenge.
“A lot of those things are very much on my plate. I intend to be the president who makes the hard decisions that have to be made this fall and not defer them for the new president. I’m the boss until I’m not," she said.
Believe it or not, 38-year-old Seth Bodnar will not be UM’s youngest-ever incoming president. According to UM archivist Donna McCrea, that honor goes to James McCain, who was 37 years and 9 months old when he became UM’s 8th president in 1945. Charles Clapp was 38 years and three months old when he became president in 1921.