General Electric executive Seth Bodnar accepted a preliminary offer Tuesday to become the 18th president of the University of Montana.
"I'm honored and humbled by the confidence placed in me by the selection committee and the (Montana) Board of Regents," Bodnar said in a text. "I'm incredibly excited to join the UM team and will pour my heart and soul into helping chart the next chapter for this great institution."
Bodnar, 38, was considered the nontraditional candidate among four finalists. He was the only one without a doctorate and his career has comprised roughly six years at GE and eight years in the military instead of a long tenure in higher education.
He's a Rhodes scholar with two master's degrees from the University of Oxford in England, and ranked first in his class for overall performance at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.
Commissioner Clayton Christian made the announcement Tuesday, setting the stage for the Board of Regents to consider a contract in November, although possibly sooner. Christian said he's hoping Bodnar will visit campus in the next couple of weeks as well.
"Seth is the leader who is best suited to make this great university even stronger for the long term," Christian said in a statement. "His experience, skills and personal effectiveness are tremendous attributes to propel UM forward in its continuing tradition of excellence."
Tuesday, the announcement drew praise from regents, a faculty leader, and student leader.
Fran Albrecht, chair of the Board of Regents, said she was “thrilled” that Bodnar would be leading UM. Albrecht was one of two regents on the search committee.
“I think that Seth Bodnar is the visionary leader we need going forward,” she said.
Albrecht said the regents took the time necessary to carefully examine each of the finalists, weighing strengths and qualifications as well as risks. Once the board settled on Bodnar, she said all members expressed unanimous support for him.
The board discussed the finalists in a private meeting that lasted more than two hours Monday.
Calling Bodnar a “transformative leader,” Albrecht praised his ability to make plans, clearly express them, and follow through, as well as his financial and business background and being an “outstanding team builder.”
Albrecht said she expects Bodnar to work with interim President Sheila Stearns to get up to speed and be ready to step into the lead role Jan. 1.
“I am excited for him to be able to articulate his vision for the campus and the community,” she said. “We are so fortunate to have him at the helm.”
Student Regent Chase Greenfield also said he would be excited to see Bodnar take charge at UM. Bodnar served in the 101st Airborne Division and the U.S. Army's First Special Forces Group and was a member of the elite Green Berets.
"In my time interacting with Seth, it became very apparent to me that he was an incredible individual, demonstrated amazing and outstanding leadership capacity, and I think that's something that our university has been looking for for a long time," Greenfield said.
"I think he's going to bring a fresh start to UM that is much needed. That's my initial perception."
Greenfield also said it's important to note that Bodnar's contract is subject to a public hearing and formal board approval.
Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman said she's looking forward to working with Bodnar and appreciates his energy and optimism. His selection wasn't a surprise to her.
"So many people that I spoke with were very excited about Seth Bodnar and really thought his campus visit was energizing," Bowman said.
At GE, Bodnar is a senior executive for GE Transportation, a unit with $5 billion in revenue and 10,000 employees. He was previously president of GE Transportation's Digital Solutions business and was its first-ever chief digital officer.
Some faculty members have expressed skepticism about Bodnar's lack of experience in higher education, but Bowman said most people she's talked with didn't see his unconventional credentials as a barrier, especially after talking with him.
She said members of the campus also drew confidence in his approach to leadership.
"I think people appreciated his comment about the need for a strong provost," Bowman said of the chief academic officer on campus. "It shows that he sees areas where he can use other team members to strengthen his skillset."
She said he was aware his lack of experience in higher education might be seen as a potential liability, and he came to UM prepared to address it. She said he did it well.
"He said, 'I will get a strong provost. I will listen.' He made it clear that a university is not a business, yet he can bring strategies and ideas from his business background and then work with academic team players to put together a strong administration."
Bodnar is married to pediatrician and Missoula native Chelsea Elander, and he had made an attempt to work at UM before.
In 2016, Bodnar declined an offer to serve as the dean of the UM School of Business Administration, citing responsibilities and transitions at GE. When the job for president opened at UM, he said faculty who had gotten to know him through the dean search encouraged him to apply.
"I'm first and foremost driven by a strong sense of service," Bodnar earlier told the Missoulian. "And I firmly believe in the power of higher education to transform lives and community."
He added, "My parents were both educators, and they instilled a sense of service in me. And I went to West Point, where the mission of that institution is to build leaders of character for a lifetime of service to the nation."
In a news release, UM said Bodnar and Elander will visit Missoula on Thursday and Friday, Oct. 12 and 13 and into Homecoming weekend.
The search committee of some 20 faculty, staff, students, regents and community members reviewed 99 applications and brought four finalists to campus after interviewing 13 in person. The three other finalists had more traditional backgrounds in academia, although one also is currently in banking.
Tuesday, Commissioner Christian thanked the search committee and those who submitted comments about the finalists. He said he and the board heard their ideas, insights and concerns, and the result is an extraordinary leader.
UM has struggled in recent years with declining enrollment and ensuing budget challenges. UM officials are seeing positive signs in enrollment, but some members of the campus community consider this time in UM's history a watershed moment.
Bodnar's resume offers evidence of exceptional leadership capacity, but he's also untested in higher education. Christian said there's no way to eliminate all the risk from a hire, but that Bodnar fit the bill when it came to feedback from campus.
"What we heard ... over and over is what the university really needs is someone that can provide inspiration and vision and enthusiasm in leadership," Christian said. "And what I heard in terms of feedback on Seth is that he appears to be that guy."
After the public forum with Bodnar, a couple of faculty members bent Christian's ear: "This is the guy we can follow. We've been looking for inspiration and leadership and that's what he demonstrated here."
While he lacks a doctorate, and Christian said UM is in the business of Ph.D.s, he also said UM needs a proven leader, not someone with expertise in a particular discipline. He said Bodnar demonstrated advanced learning through his West Point career and his two master's degrees, and his leadership skills are evident.
Missoulian reporter Dillon Kato contributed to this article.