It's official: Seth Bodnar, an executive with General Electric, will be the University of Montana's incoming president.
On a unanimous voice vote Thursday, the Montana Board of Regents approved the contract to bring on Bodnar in January 2018, putting a stamp on Commissioner Clayton Christian's recommendation that the candidate with an unconventional background lead UM.
Regent Martha Sheehy said the search committee received strong applicants, and higher education officials were excited to welcome Bodnar. She also said she wanted to talk about the sentiments behind the contract.
"Behind it, there's a whole lot of heart and a whole lot of belief and a whole lot of support, and we are going to provide that to you," Sheehy said.
Bodnar is a Rhodes scholar with two master's degrees from the University of Oxford, and he's a Green Beret who graduated first in his class from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. Just 38 in October when selected to head UM, he has spent his career in the military and at General Electric.
At the meeting, Bodnar said he's dedicated much of his life to serving his country, and an institution of higher education that places importance on quality, accessibility and affordability is critical for the nation. One scholarship he earned had a motto to "fight the world's fight."
"I can't think of a more important fight than public higher education," Bodnar said. "It is fundamentally important, and it is a privilege to be on this team."
Typically, the regents discuss items on the first day of their meetings and take final votes on the second day. Thursday, they decided to take up the vote early, and student Regent Chase Greenfield of UM moved the board approve the contract.
Greenfield said on a superficial but personal level, he had an interest in UM's next president because that person will speak at his commencement. But he also wants the best for UM, and he's pleased to put faith in Bodnar's leadership.
"On a deeper level, this person is responsible for the future of the most important thing in my life right now, which is the University of Montana," Greenfield said.
The regents approved a salary of $313,845 for Bodnar, on par with Montana State University–Bozeman President Waded Cruzado's salary and that of interim UM President Sheila Stearns. The current contract does not include deferred compensation, although regents may amend it later; it does include a residence and vehicle allowance.
This fall, the Montana University System saw a 6 percent increase in enrollment of Native American students across campuses, said Angela McLean in a report to regents. McLean is the director of American Indian/Minority Achievement and K-12 Partnerships.
All told, that meant Native American enrollment went from 2,147 last fall to 2,286 this fall, McLean confirmed. At UM, the numbers went from 538 to 561, according to a dashboard with enrollment data on the Commissioner's Office website.
In an email, UM vice president for enrollment and student affairs Tom Crady noted the campus was purposeful in paying attention to those students.
"We improved our financial aid and (recruitment in) all the tribal schools," Crady said.
At the meeting, McLean shared the mission statement of the MUS American Indian and Minority Achievement Council along with recommendations that campuses bring proposals to the regents by March 2018 to support minorities. The mission is the following:
"The Montana University System strives to be a premier public higher education system in the country for American Indian students, administrators, faculty and staff.
"Every Montana University system institution will do everything it can to remove barriers, obstacles and challenges that hinder student success.
"The Montana University System is committed to working with Montana Tribal Colleges to ensure mutually beneficial relationships and student success."
This week, the Montana Legislature wrapped up a special session to manage a $227 million budget shortfall, and Gov. Steve Bullock's proposal and the Legislature's final budget largely protect higher education. The university system is taking only a 1 percent cut.
In his update, Commissioner Christian shared the outcome from the session with regents, thanking the governor and legislators.
"I think it was very clear moving into this special session and coming out, he (Bullock) values education and values higher education, and we truly thank him for those efforts and for prioritizing education in Montana," Christian said.
However, MSU President Cruzado noted higher education already experienced a significant reduction this year, and students and families are paying the tab.
"This year when the legislative session ended, the Montana University System absorbed a $20 million cut," Cruzado said of the spring 2017 session.
"And unfortunately, we had to turn it around and put that on the backs of our students and families with tuition increases that ranged from 2 percent all the way up to 15 percent.
"So I'm very grateful that on this occasion, our students and families were spared another tuition increase."
In an email, deputy commissioner for communications Kevin McRae said the 1 percent cut translates to about $4.5 million for the university system over the biennium.
"As the commissioner said, this is a cut on top of previous cuts, but at this level the MUS can continue our work to improve and grow educational opportunity in Montana," McRae said.
The Legislature also adopted furloughs for some state employees, but McRae said the bill does not appear to apply to college and university campuses. However, he also said the commissioner's office is going to seek more information and also recognizes that union contracts protect employees. Thursday, Bullock said he'd veto that bill.
Generally, Christian said he's pleased with the outcome from the session, but he also acknowledged that it will have a significant impact on the university system.
"It could have been worse in so many ways. I feel good about that. But it still is going to have a dramatic impact, and we'll need to adjust for those now," Christian said.
In other business:
- Regent Bob Nystuen said the campaign for the six mill levy that supports higher education is looking for endorsements and donations. The levy has been in place some 70 years, and it will be on the November 2018 ballot. It provides some $20 million a year for Montana campuses.
- Helen Thigpen, associate legal counsel for the Commissioner's Office, said new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights does not substantially change the way campuses assess Title IX discrimination complaints. Campuses will continue to use the "preponderance of the evidence" standard to determine whether sexual discrimination occurred, she said.
- Commissioner Christian announced the hire of Blair Fjeseth as the new communications director for the Commissioner's Office. He said the hire does not expand the budget, and the Commissioner's Office realigned spending knowing the regents want the university system to better tell its story. McRae said Fjeseth is currently the director of communications for Montana Strategies 360, teaches social media management at Carroll College, is past communications director for former Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, and will earn a salary of $78,000.
- UM proposed a possible Center for Translational Medicine and also proposed changing the name of the School of Business and Administration to the College of Business. Regents typically approve items the day following discussion and no one raised objections Thursday.