This week the University of Montana announced that the new year will bring a new president to campus: Seth Bodnar, currently a senior executive at General Electric, has been selected by the Board of Regents to become the university’s 18th president starting on Jan. 1, 2018.
The announcement capped a search process that began nearly one year ago, in November 2016, when Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian asked previous president Royce Engstrom to step down. Sheila Stearns, a former commissioner of higher education, has acted as interim president in the meantime.
First of all, Stearns has earned this editorial board’s appreciation and thanks for providing a steady hand and capable leadership during an unprecedented time of challenges and transitions for the university. She has not only held the helm while the university saw its budget was reduced and staff let go, she worked hard to ensure robust discussions took place before making the tough decisions on where to make unpopular cuts. Ultimately, Stearns deserves a great deal of the credit for gracefully steering the university onto more solid footing and positioning it for a brighter future under new leadership.
Next, of course, we would like to warmly welcome Bodnar to Missoula and wish him all the best in his critical position as the head of university. His ability to rise to the demands of his new role is of the utmost importance not only to the campus community of students, staff and faculty, but to all Missoulians as well as generations of alums who maintain ties with their beloved university from locations across the nation and the world.
Bodner, already has ties to Missoula through his wife, Chelsea Elander, a pediatrician who was born in Missoula. A Rhodes scholar, he was ranked first in his class at West Point and holds two master’s degrees from the University of Oxford in England. He served in the the 101st Airborne Division and the U.S. Army's First Special Forces Group and was a Green Beret.
His time at GE has also been marked by excellence, with a meteoric rise from the company’s first-ever chief digital officer to president of Digital Solutions for Transportation to senior executive.
He was one of 99 official applicants for the president position, and one of only four finalists chosen by a search committee consisting of 20 members of the student body, faculty, staff, regents and community.
Interestingly, Bodnar was a finalist for dean of UM’s School of Business Administration last year, but declined the position to stay on at GE as the company underwent its own turbulent transitions.
In person, Bodnar comes across as articulate, energetic and confident. His financial and business background point to strengths in planning and team-building in particular, and shows a promising record of achieving difficult goals.
However, not holding a doctorate nor boasting a long career in academia, as well as being relatively youthful at age 38, Bodnar is considered the “unconventional” choice for president and, as such, he is certain to have his critics. We would only ask them to keep an open mind, even as we all keep a watchful eye, and give Bodnar a chance to be judged on his performance.
He does, after all, have has his work cut out for him. Over the past few years, UM has taken a hard hit to its image with a federal investigation into its handling of sexual assaults on campus. It has weathered a steep decline in student enrollment, and a corresponding decline in its budget even as tuition costs nationally trend upward.
UM must continue working to repair its reputation by building strong community relationships and improving transparency. Its new leader must be a passionate advocate for higher education, in particular the value of liberal arts, and for sufficient state funding.
Bodnar will be tasked with putting together a strong administration, something he has addressed in public comments about the need to name a “strong provost.” While student retention has already improved and freshman enrollment appears to have stabilized, Bodnar must push hard to promote enrollment and smooth out institutional hurdles, such as the inefficient delivery of need- and merit-based financial aid.
He needs to help UM define its mission and, even more essential, its relevance for the decades that lie ahead.
In meeting these challenges, Bodnar should not hesitate to tap into the deep wealth of experience and expertise available right on campus through UM’s world-class faculty and staff. Most importantly, in the years to come, he must maintain a campus culture of openness, honesty and willingness to engage in tough discussions with the wider community.
So long as he does, Bodnar ought to have the full support of the university, of Missoulians and of Montanans. His success will be our success too.