It's tough to beat the M when it comes to favorite places on campus for incoming University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.

He's already climbed up the switchbacks while talking with college students.

"When you hike up the M with a group of students, it's actually such a refreshing experience, just physically and mentally," Bodnar said.

As he takes the helm at UM, Bodnar will likely need that enthusiasm and vigor as he faces other steep climbs at the flagship. This month, he steps into the job held by interim President Sheila Stearns, who herself took over after a presidential stepdown in December 2016 following a couple of tumultuous years at UM.

Enrollment has fallen since 2010, although positive indicators appeared this fall, such as an uptick in freshman admissions. Budget challenges remain. A process to set academic and administrative priorities — to determine which programs to cut and which to beef up — consumed a lot of time and energy this school year, but the work is far from complete.

Bodnar is also going to lead in a time of challenge for institutions of higher learning across the country and increased skepticism by the public. A Pew Research Center survey last summer showed that 58 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents believed colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

Bodnar, though, has a deep enthusiasm for the work of the institution, and he and other higher education officials in Montana are optimistic about the future of the flagship. In fact, the former General Electric executive has already advocated for higher education to members of Montana's congressional delegation and other political leaders.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, are among those who reached out to him after he was appointed to lead the Missoula flagship, and he's encouraged by the support for UM and is ready to champion the cause.

"This is the fight I want to be engaged in because it matters so dearly to this country," Bodnar said.

The first-in-class graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is also inspired by the careers and contributions of UM's graduates. He points to Emily Graslie, who graduated with a bachelor's in fine arts from UM and works as the "chief curiosity correspondent" for The Field Museum in Chicago. He's heard former Microsoft CFO John Connors talk not only about the strength of accounting at UM but about his history and Latin teachers here.

Bodnar said he's spent the last two decades in the complex and dynamic world UM's graduates will enter, and students will need to be creative, agile and innovative. They'll need to be lifelong learners, he said.

"When I think about ... the adaptive challenges that students are going to have to solve over the course of their careers, they are best placed to solve that having an education that is exactly like the one the University of Montana provides," Bodnar said.

Others on campus are clear about the priorities Bodnar must address as he settles into the role.

Paul Haber, head of the faculty union, said UM still needs to identify its North star, and he believes Bodnar understands the importance: "What is UM about? And how is it going to pursue that distinctiveness? That job still needs to be done."

UM has had a slate of interim officials in top posts, and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said the new president must form a high-functioning leadership team for the long-term stability of the institution. Indeed, Bodnar established a search committee to hire a second-in-command provost roughly one month before he stepped into the presidency.

UM has seen much change in recent years, and Stearns said a lot of employees have felt undervalued or underestimated, and they need to be uplifted: "That's a huge priority, and I think President Bodnar can and will bring a real leadership focus to that."

Maria Mangold, staff senate president, agreed people need to be a priority, and she said his motto of "Mission first, people always," resonates: "Staff are encouraged to hear that, and we're excited to see some action."

***

Stearns stepped into the role of president out of retirement last December at the request of the commissioner of higher education, and she said she encountered a campus that wasn't as confident in itself as she'd known it to be.

"That surprised me even though I'd been reading press accounts," said Stearns, herself a former commissioner of higher education.

However, she also found "a reservoir, a kind of well of hidden optimism," in talking with people one on one. Stearns said she wanted to uncover that sentiment and help energize it, and she believed her administration did so.

Members of the campus community have been willing to talk with her about anything, and she's been enthused with the "wellspring of great ideas and energy" that she hadn't expected.

In her tenure, Stearns asked the campus to embark on a project to set academic and administrative priorities, and her goal was to leave the table set for Bodnar. But she said the undertaking was more difficult to pull off than she had anticipated.

"I do think a good solid table has been constructed. It does not have the great beautiful tablecloth with the china just yet," Stearns said.

Nevertheless, she said she's proud UM accomplished as much as it did, and more work will require more conversation, learning and listening across the campus.

Bodnar and Stearns are both serving as president in the first couple of weeks of January in a transition period through Jan. 12, and last week, the new president said he's in learning and listening mode. At the same time, he discussed his overarching priorities, and he reiterated his belief in the "transformative power of higher education" and its importance as a national cornerstone.

"I can't think of any more important mission than the mission of the University of Montana," Bodnar said.

UM is preparing students not just for their first jobs, but for their seventh jobs, and for careers of adaptability and change, he said. It's also addressing critical issues of the day, such as water scarcity, a problem that crosses disciplines, including forestry, law and hydrology.

"That is the type of what I'll call ecosystem challenge that only an institution like UM can tackle," Bodnar said.

Maybe most importantly, he said, UM is forming people to be citizens of the country.

"Our founders said an educated citizenry is the bulwark of the republic," Bodnar said. "And ... shaping informed, educated citizens is an incredibly important mission of this institution.

"That is a public good that the University of Montana supplies for this nation."

It's also a place for free, informed and respectful debate, "a mission we ignore at the peril of this nation," Bodnar said. Yet perceptions of higher education "are at an alarmingly low point."

"I think that is a very dangerous state for our country, and that's coming from an individual who has been in some dangerous places," said Bodnar, who was deployed to Iraq during his military career.

As such, he said leaders in higher education need to continue showing the tangible benefits UM provides, and he's pleased by the number of Montanans who have reached out to him since he was appointed to lead UM.

"It shows me that people get the importance of this institution to the state," Bodnar said.

***

The newly minted president offers the view of UM from a 10,000-foot level, but he also counts some concrete goals. Enrollment has been a challenge at UM, and Bodnar said it is important to retain and graduate students once they do enroll.

In the Montana University System, completion after four years is 53 percent, according to data presented at a conference at UM this fall. At UM last spring, retention of freshman was 68 percent, and in the system as a whole, it was 75 percent over four years.

"I think we have some room to improve there. I want to be sure we double down," Bodnar said.

Generally, UM has a number of world-class programs, and he wants to understand those strengths, grow excellence, and match the university's offerings with the opportunities in the world.

"My challenge to our team has been to continually ask ourselves, 'What does the world need of a university today, and how does the University of Montana meet that need?'"

Resources at UM are limited, as at many other universities, and Bodnar said his administration will run a tight ship. As such, he's looking at how to be as efficient and productive as technologically possible.

"I am spending a lot of time trying to understand the ways we can be effective," he said.

The success of students is UM's mission, he said, but the campus also has thousands of people who work there. He wants the university to be a supportive place for employees, a workplace where they can develop and advance.

"Having a place that is a wonderful place to come to work is what we owe every employee at the University of Montana," Bodnar said.

In the next week, Stearns will finalize the recommendations she made out of the prioritization process, and Bodnar said he will move forward based on the work that's already taken place. He said the prospect of retrenchment — a way to cut tenured faculty — is "not what we're here to do" and is also a "loaded question."

"We are here to focus on excellence at this university and make sure that we are sustaining the programs that make sense for this institution and really helping to amplify those deep areas of strength," Bodnar said.

In that regard, he said he plans to build on the work of the prioritization group with insights from those who worked on the strategic plan and other campus leaders to craft a strategy for UM: "I will be identifying a team to spearhead this important work over the coming weeks.”

***

For people in the trenches, staff development is a priority at UM, especially since the departure of some 90 employees who took voluntary severance offers, said the Staff Senate's Mangold. She said UM funds professional development for faculty, but not for staff.

"Professional development and training is essential for people to be able to do their jobs well and to obviously fill in gaps, to make sure that we don't see any lapse in students, who are our main priority," Mangold said.

She also said it's time for UM to focus on its strengths again instead of its shortcomings, and staff are enthusiastic about Bodnar's ability to help the campus transition.

"We're excited that we have a new leader who is going to be here on a permanent basis 'cause he's really going to lay the foundation for moving us forward," Mangold said.

Haber, president of the University Faculty Association, also said he was hopeful about Bodnar's leadership. In recent months, the union has clashed with the administration, even filing a grievance to defend lecturers protected in the collective bargaining agreement as contract faculty.

But Haber said he believes the administration will make sound decisions going forward with regard to contract obligations: "I'm actually confident that the mishaps are behind us."

That said, he and Bodnar have acknowledged that they will disagree at times, and Haber said it's natural between an administration and union. All the same, he anticipates mutually respectful communication, and he also expects Bodnar will follow a shared governance model of leading.

"When he talks about how he wants to lead the university, it is a very consultative discussion. I've urged him to be as substantive and as transparent as possible, that we really need that at the university," Haber said.

Bodnar is starting the job at a difficult time, he said. UM underwent a prioritization process, but big decisions have yet to be made about how to invest in — and divest from — programs, and Haber said Bodnar must do so for the 2019 fiscal year budget in absence of a clearly defined mission for UM.

The process needs to take place, and he said articulating a mission is more than aggregating data points into a strategic plan. But he also said it's something other institutions of higher learning are doing, and he believes UM can find its North star in several months of pursuit and trusts Bodnar sees the same priority.

"Universities are needing to rethink their role in the broader society. It's happening all over the place, so UM just needs to do that," Haber said .

UM has been an institution in transition, and the Commissioner's Office has been heavily involved in Missoula. Last week, Commissioner Christian said he's received "incredibly positive" feedback about Bodnar from a wide swath of people, from faculty and staff on campus to business people and others off campus.

Early on, Bodnar was considered the nontraditional candidate for the job as a relative outsider to academia and not yet 40 years old, but his energy for higher education and intellectual acumen impressed the community and search committee. Christian said his office and the Montana Board of Regents have much confidence in Bodnar's ability to develop a team and lead UM, and he's more than looking forward to seeing that team coalesce.

"Believe it or not, there's a lot of work that we need to do around the system, and that's got to be the focus of my office too. We're encouraged and anxious for a high functioning University of Montana that's ultimately meeting the needs of the people that not only work there but the students that we serve," Christian said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.