Seth Bodnar might challenge some of the Lady Griz basketball players to one-on-one games.
"I'll probably get embarrassed and beat," Bodnar said. On second thought: "I will get embarrassed and beat."
Bodnar, selected this week to be the University of Montana's 18th president, wants to go to athletic practices, eat dinner with students around a big dining room table, and hike the M with them.
Wednesday, the day after the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education announced the General Electric executive had accepted an offer to serve as the next UM president, Bodnar talked about his plans for UM.
The graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point said he will know more about how he will approach looming budget challenges and outcomes of a process to set program priorities on campus after discussions with current UM leaders.
Those are two of several challenges UM is facing (see box).
But the Rhodes scholar with two master's degrees from the University of Oxford said he plans to be a visible president engaged with students.
"I am energized by students," Bodnar said. "They are the heartbeat of the university, and I can't wait to spend time and get to know as many of them as I can. And that's just the privilege of a lifetime."
At 38 years old, Bodnar will be a young leader. The the average age of a university president is 61.7, according to Inside Higher Ed.
His intended start date is Jan. 1, and the Montana Board of Regents will take up his contract in November, possibly sooner.
"Obviously, I have a lot to learn, and I am a firm believer that in the multitude of counselors, there's great wisdom," Bodnar said.
As a relative newcomer to higher education leadership, he said he has sought and will continue to seek guidance, including from interim President Sheila Stearns, former Presidents Royce Engstrom and James Koch, and other fellow university presidents. He'd spoken with five already.
"I'm a relentless learner, and I won't tell anybody at the university that I think I have all the answers," Bodnar said.
At the same time, he said his age offers advantages. Having come from outside academia, he sees direct links between the education offered at UM and needs in the real world, and his advocacy for higher education may resonate with more audiences.
Bodnar has been a Green Beret living in a grass hut working with community leaders to help bring stability to a small jungle island. He's been president of a technology business. And he's seen how a company that's 125 years old must adapt to win in the digital age.
In the real world, Bodnar said, "our students are going to face, after graduating, a dynamic and changing environment."
UM offers students an education that prepares them for those rapid changes, he said. It's not just the research conducted at UM, he said, but the agility UM teaches in showing students how to learn.
As someone who has seen firsthand the importance of the education UM offers, Bodnar said he may be prepared to advocate for it with audiences who otherwise might not be as receptive.
He also has a goal for UM, one he noted when he was here as a finalist and reiterated Wednesday to the Missoulian and to the campus in an email.
"I think the objective we should strive for is for the University of Montana to be the premier flagship university of the mountain West," Bodnar said. "The question I will pose to everybody on campus is, 'Why not us?' The ingredients are here. Let's make it happen."
Bodnar will take the helm of a campus facing significant and ongoing challenges. Enrollment has dipped at UM since 2011. Projected revenue shortfalls at the state could mean another $12 million in cuts over two years at UM on top of other recent and severe reductions.
Two other key positions in the cabinet have interim leaders, the provost and vice president of finance. And a process to set program priorities is underway at UM, but it isn't clear how any outcomes will come to pass.
In the coming weeks, Bodnar said he and Stearns will talk regularly, and one of the topics will be program prioritization. He wants to learn about the project in context and said he will move forward in collaboration with faculty, staff and deans.
At the same time, Bodnar said he didn't have a set timeline yet for how that process will finish or how it would fit with a search for provost, currently leading the prioritization.
He commended interim Provost Beverly Edmond, and he said he wants to restart the search for a provost as soon as possible (the provost search was suspended after Commissioner Clayton Christian asked Engstrom to step down late last year).
At a campus forum earlier, Bodnar said the new provost will be a key partner for him. Wednesday, he again said he will be looking for a world-class academic to fill that post: "I want to start working on that one as soon as we can."
He hasn't had the opportunity to delve deeply into the UM budget, but Bodnar said the financial health of the institution is a priority for the president.
"We need to do that through continuing to focus on raising enrollment, both attracting and retaining students. We need to continue the expansion of the research enterprise. We need to continue the great work the (UM) Foundation has been doing," Bodnar said, praising Griz Nation's "transformative philanthropic efforts and generosity."
Montana State University–Bozeman has seen an upswing in enrollment and income, while UM's admissions and revenue have dropped. In Missoula, campus and community leaders want to see UM regain its footing as a strong flagship on a sound financial foundation.
Bodnar said he and the commissioner hadn't yet talked in detail about how to position UM in the future. But he said he looks forward to collaborating with the commissioner and Board of Regents Chair Fran Albrecht to lay out a vision for UM, along with the entire campus community. He also said good work has already taken place on that front with the strategic plan.
"UM has a tremendous asset base and platform for growth," Bodnar said. "We have numerous world-class programs, and I've listed those in the past. We have placed-based centers with international reach. We have a strong and growing research enterprise.
"And I think we have a great mix of deep sciences expertise as well as humanities and what you might call the liberal arts foundation. And I think that combination is a great asset to provide exactly the type of integrated, educational model that students need today."
Bodnar said one thing he wants to make sure is clear is that Stearns is still the president and the leader of the university.
"We're only 24 hours into this process, and she and I will work closely together to build an effective transition plan for the coming months.
"I'm in learning mode right now and not involved in the operations of the university. I'm extremely grateful for Sheila and the team's continued leadership until the official transition."