A few months ago, Seth Bodnar's son asked him if he'd always loved trains.
Bodnar, a transportation executive with General Electric, said Friday the question gave him pause. In fact, he said, the thread in his career has been driving teams to their highest potential, whether at GE or in the military or technology business.
"I'm in the people development business," Bodnar said. "My passion, my purpose, my energy in life has come from working to develop teams and helping people reach their full potential."
Bodnar, one of four finalists for University of Montana president, spoke Friday about how his "nontraditional" background could be an asset for UM; he offered his goal that UM become the premier flagship in the mountain West; and he shared his observations of the things he loves about the community and UM.
At UM, he appreciates the passion people have for the place, the students, the research that comes out of the institution, and the "deep hunger and energy to see it succeed."
"It's easy in times of challenge to lose sight of what makes a place great," Bodnar said to a packed University Center Theatre. "And so I would just tell you from this outsider's point of view, Griz Nation is strong. It is powerful."
And the next president would need that energy to chart a course forward, he said.
At a forum for the Faculty Senate, Bodnar was up front about having a nontraditional background as a candidate for president of UM and acknowledged he would have a lot to learn.
But Bodnar called the position a "dream job" and said he told a friend in 2001 he wanted to lead a university one day. At two forums, he shared the reasons he believes he could be effective at UM — if the faculty would accept him as a partner.
"I believe very firmly that the mission of the institution of higher education is more important today than probably at any other time in the history of our country," said Bodnar, the third of four finalists to visit the campus.
It's critical for democracy, the development of ethical citizens, and civil discourse, which is possibly at a low point in U.S. history, he said. The world is changing rapidly, and faith in institutions is sagging, but Bodnar said he sees bright spots too.
Nationally, student populations are more civically engaged than they have been for 50 years, and research is making continuous advances, he said. He wants to lead a team that is fostering informed, creative lifelong learners.
Bodnar shared a quote from philosopher John Dewey that echoes his view of the importance of education: "Democracy needs to be born anew every generation, and education is the midwife."
At the forum for the Faculty Senate, Bodnar said he understands he's the nontraditional candidate with a lot to learn about a research institution, and he said he didn't want to be a lightning rod.
At the same time, he said he believes the needs of UM align with the skills he's built over the last two decades, and he drew parallels between his work leading the U.S. Special Forces and business teams, and directing a university.
Bodnar said he's managed budgets, built diverse and high-functioning teams, fostered entrepreneurial ideas, taken smart risks and communicated and advocated for resources.
"That's what I'd love to do here with you," he said.
At both forums, he listened carefully to those who asked questions of him, followed up when he saw he hadn't fully addressed issues, and asked some questions in return.
Bodnar was first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar. He said he learned to solve problems at West Point, and he learned to ask the right questions at Oxford University.
"That combination has been tremendously valuable for me," he said.
When one high school student told the candidate he planned to start his engineering studies at UM and then transition to Montana State University–Bozeman, Bodnar told the student he wanted him to finish at UM.
"This is a STEM university," Bodnar said of science, technology, engineering and math. But he also said there's a false dichotomy between the humanities and sciences, and he was excited about their potential at UM.
"The best educational models bring those together, and that's what we can do here," Bodnar said.
He ended his answer to the student with a smile and another plug: "Go, Griz."
One person wanted Bodnar to talk about the risk UM takes if it hires a candidate with a more traditional background inside academia.
Bodnar said he would argue that academic inquiry and objective research are more important today than ever and must be defended. And he said he may be in a better position to defend them to stakeholders as someone who has led in the military, business and technology enterprise. He said he knows firsthand the need for a broad-based liberal arts education because he's seen direct implications in diplomacy and international security, for example.
Bodnar also said that unlike a traditional candidate, he isn't going to try to be the president and provost both. Rather than try to do the job of the provost, he would get out of his team's way, as he has in other arenas.
"If I focus too much on that, I am not out advocating and telling the story and getting on the front foot and fighting for this important institution," Bodnar said of the provost's job.
In fact, he said he believes in the value of teams, and he would rely on his leadership team as president: "I would tell you that I would lean heavily on the provost and a strong faculty if I were selected."
In response to a question, he also noted his priorities for a provost. He'd want to hire a person with "towering academic credentials" and an accomplished scholar. He'd want a provost with experience at a research institution. And he'd look for a person who understands how to develop faculty, how to attract them, retain them and help them grow.
One faculty member wanted to know how Bodnar would shorten his learning curve, and what his response would be if he faced a vote of no confidence in three years.
"I don't ever lead or come into a place thinking I have all the answers," Bodnar said.
If in three years, he hasn't built the level of trust so faculty think he has the best interests of the institution in mind, he said he would have created a problem.
He said he isn't going to be a knight in shining armor for UM, but he's been in the business of the development of people and ensuring they meet their potential, and that's what he'd like to do at UM as long as the faculty would accept his background.
"I'd love to be your partner in the right circumstances," Bodnar said.
Bodnar's wife is Missoula native Chelsea Elander, a physician, and he said in some ways, his hire would be a two-for-one deal because UM would get his partner, too: "Montana women are tough, and they hold you accountable." His family likes hiking up to the M, going to A Carousel for Missoula, and eating at the Iron Horse.
However, even if UM hired someone else, Bodnar said he hoped the faculty and staff would support the president.
In response to a question about UM's project to set program priorities, he said the next president would face tough decisions early. He said the president would have to execute the decisions, but everyone needed to own them.
The next president would need to be resilient, he said, but he sees potential for UM to flourish, and he ticked off acclaimed programs.
"I believe the best days of this university are ahead," Bodnar said.
Traditionally, Bodnar's background would be considered atypical for someone selected to lead a university. He doesn't have a doctorate, for one, and his public forum drew not only faculty, staff and students, but prominent community members.
Former mayor Dan Kemmis said he showed up because he's known Bodnar and his family, and he's also "vitally interested in the process of selecting a president." He appreciated Bodnar's recognition of the community involvement evident in the overflow crowd of more than 300, and he said he believes the community is open to Bodnar.
In some ways, Kemmis said, Bodnar is less of an outsider than the others, having the strongest Montana connections.
"I think there's an openness to bringing on board some qualities of leadership that might be slightly outside the normal range of capacities that you would look at for this kind of position," Kemmis said.
Jackson Sapp, a senior studying history and African American studies, said he believes the lack of an academic background will be more of a challenge for faculty and staff. For students, though, he said Bodnar's military background and experience with counterinsurgency might be more of a hard sell; his corporate background will be a mix.
"Many people would find that to be a boon. Many people will not, especially students," Sapp said.
Commissioner Clay Christian, who will present a candidate for approval to the Montana Board of Regents after consultation with the search committee, said Bodnar's nontraditional background does present an obstacle. But Christian said he believes the community is open to finding the best leader, even if it's someone with a different career path.
If Bodnar rises to the top for the search committee and himself, he believes the community will accept the choice. Christian said one of the only things he asked of the committee of some 20 people including faculty, staff, students and community members, is to do what they believe is best.
"We just have to have the courage to do what we think is right, and I think if we do that, that committee represents the community and will get it right," Christian said.