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Seth Bodnar appears to be an unorthodox candidate to serve as president of the University of Montana.

He's a senior executive at General Electric, not president or provost at another campus. And he doesn't have a doctoral degree.

But the Rhodes Scholar's resume shows examples of formidable leadership and academic strength, including the following: 

  • Two master's degrees from the University of Oxford in England
  • First in class for overall performance at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point
  • Class valedictorian in academics at West Point
  • Evaluated as "brilliant" and "one of the most gifted and talented officers among all ranks in multi-national forces, Iraq" for his assignment under Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno
  • Promoted one year early to rank of major, an advancement achieved by fewer than 10 percent of U.S. Army officers

Bodnar is one of four finalists for president at UM, and the job for him would represent a nosedive in potential earnings: In 2016, a report from the Associated Press and Equilar counted median compensation for S&P 500 CEOs at $10.8 million and recorded total compensation for the head of GE at $26.8 million.

The leaders of Montana's flagship earned $316,819 in base salary, according to a survey of 2015-2016 compensation by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Deferred compensation bumps up the total, but it's a sliver compared to pay in the private industry.

Bodnar, though, said he isn't in it for the money. And at least some community members are already excited about the prospect of an energetic and tested leader at the helm of UM, although some faculty members have also expressed concern about his credentials.

Bodnar's wife, Chelsea Elander, is a Rhodes Scholar and Missoula native, and Bodnar said he wants to bring his family here and lead UM, an institution he sees as the backbone of the community.

"Life for me isn't about how large your bank account is, but how large your impact in your service to others is," he said. "I'm first and foremost driven by a strong sense of service. 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."

These days, the tenure of university presidents is around seven years, but Bodnar — whose references include Petraeus and GE Chair Jeffrey Immelt —said if he earns the privilege of leading UM, he's interested in staying for the next 20 years, or as long as he remains effective.

"This for me is not a step on an academic career ladder," said Bodnar. "It's a destination and a place that I want to work and a place where I want to raise my family. It's a big personal investment."


Paul Haber, professor of political science at UM and member of the search committee, said he's pleased to have an unconventional candidate in a pool of strong finalists.

"I think it will be an interesting process to see how the university, the campus, responds to him and how he responds to the campus," Haber said. "He's here really I think based on his impressive leadership skills, which he feels confident that he could transfer to a university campus setting."

Haber is head of the University Faculty Association, and he's heard concerns from a handful of instructors who worry Bodnar does not have the academic background to steer UM. Haber said he's had anywhere from five to 10 conversations with faculty.

He tells them he's interested in the character of a leader. He also notes that some of the requirements for leading a university are similar to the requirements for heading a private multimillion-dollar institution, such as the ability to collaboratewith key constituencies.

He said Bodnar is up against stiff competition, and he'd rather see the final pool offer such diversity.

"I'm really looking forward to an opportunity for a reset on campus. I think we need it, and the final selection will be made with that in mind," Haber said.

Mary-Ann Bowman, head of the Faculty Senate, said she believes faculty will give Bodnar a fair shake, and she noted he has teaching experience at West Point. She said he offers a different skill set, but she believes faculty will evaluate him based on whether he's the best person to pull UM forward.

"I do believe that the faculty will have an open mind as we look at the candidates," Bowman said. "We know that the presidential search committee has done their due diligence and is comprised of excellent members of the campus community."

Outside campus, some community members are already enthusiasticabout having a sharp and passionate leader in place at UM. Alex Philp, an entrepreneur who has faculty affiliations with UM and a doctorate degree himself, is nonetheless underwhelmed by terminal degrees.

Philp met Bodnar a couple of months ago through a mutual contact, and he said the candidate clearly has academic prowess. And Philp, who is not on the search committee, said he's excited the campus will meet a finalist who comes from outside the box.

"I don't think we're looking for somebody who is an expert in academic credentialing," said Philp. "I think we're looking for somebody who can lead the University of Montana truly into the 21st century."


Bodnar said he wants to be clear about one thing from the start: "A university is not a business, OK? There are different objectives. There are different forms of governance. There are different definitions of success.

"I don't want people to think that if I were selected, that I would come into this role thinking that what worked at GE or at the Army or at West Point or at Oxford would work at the University of Montana.

"But I've spent the past two decades as a student and a practitioner of leadership, and I've been successful leading teams in dynamic environments and helping organizations adapt to new challenges and new opportunities, not just to survive, but to thrive."

In fact, he said research shows a successful university president is a "multidimensional leader."

A report released earlier this year from Deloitte University Press and Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities notes presidencies are changing rapidly. The report included a resume analysis of 840 presidents and surveys collected from respondents at 112 private institutions and 51 public ones.

The study noted that presidents are aging and said "where their successors will come from is more of an open question for search committees than ever before." It also identified the skills needed most in the job — strategist; communicator and storyteller; fundraiser; collaborator; financial and operational acumen, and academic and intellectual leader.

"If you look at my career over the past two decades, it's really been focused on leading organizations and dealing with adaptive challenges," Bodnar said.

At GE, for example, his resume notes he grew external orders 10 percent in 2016 during the "worst rail industry downturn in decades" as a president and chief digital officer for GE Transportation; growth is forecast at 20 percent for 2017.

And while Bodnar hasn't raised money for a university foundation, he's sold ideas and gained financial support for them. Over the course of the two years, he advocated for the talent and resources needed to acquire two companies, securing $100 million from GE leadership in a downturn, he said.


At UM, Bodnar said, he would want to gain clarity and agreement on the challenges the university faces, along with the opportunities. And he said it may sound "a  little bit fluffy," but he would want everyone to start with the assumption that all stakeholders have positive intentions. 

"We win or we lose together. And when challenged, we pick each other up," Bodnar said.

Together, he said, the team at UM would not spend time on areas it's decided aren't a priority. And it would focus on what it does well — and do it better than anyone else.

"That's the path to excellence," Bodnar said.

Bodnar said he's still in learning mode, and if hired, he would meet personally with 100 faculty members in his first 100 days to understand their perspectives.

Already, though, he believes it's important to "reassert the value of a liberal arts education."

Bodnar said STEM and skills-based education are important — STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math — but from the vantage point of having led in a technology business, the Army, and the private sector, he sees critical value in the liberal arts.

"A strong, holistic liberal arts education is more vital today than ever," Bodnar said. "Success in today's marketplace is not defined by what you know but how quickly you can learn and adapt."

And he said UM is positioned to teach those lessons well.

Bodnar also said he wants to relentlessly tell UM's story, and he would personally ask the top 150 high school students in Montana to dinner at his house. He'd tell them the story of his wife, who could have gone to any university she wanted and opted to attend Montana State University- Bozeman.

"She chose to stay in Montana," he said. "She won a Rhodes Scholarship and went to Harvard Medical School. I would argue that that wasn't in spite of going to college in Montana, it was because of it."

He also would want to strengthen the connection between the campus and community. He said sports are important, and he was a Division I athlete, but research as a tie is often overlooked. Last fall, UM announced it had pulled in $87 million in research, and Bodnar said he'd want to further develop the economic partnership between UM and Missoula, a powerful combination of cutting-edge research, strong academic programs, energetic students, and a Montana work ethic.

"I recognize that I am a nontraditional candidate," Bodnar said. "I recognize that I have a lot to learn.

"But I also believe that I have a lot that I could bring, and I could be an effective part of what would be a collaborative leadership team and community to work together, to chart the next exciting chapter in the future of this great institution."

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.