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University of Montana President Seth Bodnar

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar reflects on his first semester in office and discusses plans for the future in Main Hall on Thursday.  

The deck was stacked against Seth Bodnar when he took the helm of the University of Montana in January as its unconventional new president.

Enrollment had slid nearly 25 percent since 2010.

Interim administrators served in two key roles, provost and finance vice president.

The campus was struggling with its budget. And a laborious project to set fiscal priorities hadn't fully cooked.

By the end of his first month in office, the president had identified the scope of the budget problem and laid it out for the campus, a $10 million hole to be plugged in the next three years. In March, the executive who came from General Electric announced an administrative restructure aimed at better serving students.

The following month, he unveiled a draft Strategy for Distinction, a proposal with preliminary recommendations for faculty reductions and possible academic restructuring. Earlier administrations had backpedaled from such moves or never gone the distance.

Last fall, the Montana Commissioner for Higher Education tapped Bodnar for the job at UM, and he came with a background in the corporate world and the military and two master's degrees from Oxford University. At the time, the Rhodes scholar and Green Beret was just 38 years old, decades younger than the average university president.

The new administration's first semester has not been without missteps, and enrollment remains a top concern on and off campus. The preservation of research at UM and commitment to the liberal arts and humanities continues to be in question despite explicit support for "a liberal arts education" in the Strategy for Distinction.

Professor David Moore said he hasn't yet seen from the administration a clear commitment to research, which is the core of the humanities and goes hand in hand with teaching. To continue to share knowledge with students, he said UM must maintain academic momentum.

"That's part of the concern that the university is being shifted to a vocational, job-oriented school," said Moore, an English professor.

However, by many accounts, the campus leader who came largely untested in higher education has brought an abundance of energy to work on behalf of students, a willingness to learn about life in the academy, and a respect for campus voices.

Maybe most importantly, he didn't drag his feet in delivering a work product that wasn't going to win him a popularity contest.

"What he's been able to accomplish in just a few months is really rather extraordinary, especially if you look at the record over the last few years," said Paul Haber, president of the University Faculty Association. "He got more done in a couple of months than has been done for many preceding months."

Dean Chris Comer, who leads the College of Humanities and Sciences, praised the new president's attitude on the job.

"I give Seth a lot of credit because he really doesn't put on airs. He's very open to saying, 'I'm not sure how this is going to work. What do you think?' He's consulting with a number of people," Comer said.

***

Last Thursday, Bodnar's day started at 7:30 a.m. and wouldn't end until 11 p.m., and the 15 1/2-hour day is not an anomaly for the leader who is also the father of three and training for the Missoula Marathon.

"It does take a toll on you personally and on your family," said Bodnar, who moved to Missoula with his wife, physician Chelsea Elander.

However, Bodnar finds the mission of a public university motivating. He said UM accepts people from all walks of life and fosters social mobility, and he can't count the number of alumni, including world-famous graduates, who have told him UM changed their lives and must continue to flourish.

"While I get out of bed tired some mornings, I get out of bed energized and honored to take part in this," Bodnar said.

Last week, outgoing University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven described the job of a campus president as "the toughest job in the nation," a comment quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The former military commander planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

In the story, the Chronicle noted results of a 2017 American Council on Education survey describing the top frustrations of university presidents. No. 1 on the list was money, but others were "faculty resistance to change, lack of time to think and reflect, problems inherited from previous leadership, and the belief that presidents are infinitely accessible."

Bodnar said the points resonated, but he also was quick to say it's too easy to stereotype the conversations between administrators and faculty as Main Hall setting a direction and faculty resisting. Rather, he said UM faculty care deeply about their students, and he appreciates the discourse about what's best for them — even when it's heated and "may hurt my feelings."

"What's most important is we continue working to come to the table as partners who work from an assumption of positive intentions on both ends," Bodnar said.

***

When it comes to working with members of the campus community as partners, many faculty and students — albeit not all — said the president walks the talk.

In a recent letter to the Montana Kaimin, the co-coordinator of Reinvest Montana said she walked out of the president's office "feeling belittled" after a discussion about fossil fuel divestment. Tess Gallagher Clancy had hoped a "fresh, young president" would bring a new understanding to the office.

"To our disappointment, his antagonism toward discussing fossil fuel divestment and problems with transparency and representation at the University of Montana follows how administration has treated me and my fellow students for years," she said in the letter.

However, Mariah Welch, vice president for the Associated Students at the University of Montana, said the president listens to students and solicits their input. He's done so at ASUM meetings and in the Food Zoo around a cafeteria table.

She said he recently hit the pause button on the hiring of a finance vice president because he came to believe the administration needed a focus on diversity, and he didn't want that recruitment to miss an opportunity to bring that expertise to UM.

At first, Welch said she was dismayed the search committee's time had been wasted, but then she heard the president's rationale: "It really boosted my opinion of him."

Faculty also have said he's listening and taking shared governance seriously. English Professor Nancy Cook said Bodnar has been everywhere and attended "innumerable listening sessions."

"(He's) received a tsunami of anguish and need and fear," Cook said. " … He could have just come in and been autocratic, and it probably would have been faster, but he's working assiduously to honor the processes that are in place."

Said Haber: "He has reached out to shared governance in a way that I've never seen happen in my 26 years here."

***

The new administration has misfired on a couple of occasions, and it faces significant challenges with enrollment and the identity of the flagship.

In February, questions arose about entries in Bodnar's resume, and he said he would revise the document to reflect academic conventions. In one entry, Bodnar identified himself as an "assistant professor" at West Point from 2009 to 2011, although he was not promoted from instructor until January 2011.

At the time, Bodnar said the resume reflected the highest rank he received during the assignment, a typical way to describe service in the military. But an ethicist and professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and principal investigator on the National Ethics Project said the resume should have reflected academic practices from the start.

"People who are applying for leadership positions within a particular university or higher education system have an ethical obligation to present themselves in a way that is best understood within the conventions of the system in which they're applying," said Deni Elliott, a professor who served previously as the director of the UM Practical Ethics Center.

Elander, the president's spouse, has been active in campus recruitment, and her requests for student records protected by privacy laws raised the alarm with the vice president for enrollment, whose contract had not been renewed. At the time, UM legal counsel said unequivocally that no one at UM would share student data without going through proper channels.

Those controversies appear to be put to bed at least for the time being, but the president will have to address the continued enrollment slide and questions about how budget cuts and academic reorganizations will affect UM's role as a liberal arts and sciences research institution.

As the administration hears feedback on the proposed Strategy for Distinction, Professor Kathryn Shanley said she would like to see less "tweaking" of the academic structure and a more interdisciplinary approach to education. She also advocates for a radical "re-visioning" of the curriculum to better align with UM’s humanities mission.

Although Shanley believes cuts to literature and global studies would be a disservice to the campus as it teaches students critical thinking, she also believes the administration is working to improve UM. She said she supported the hiring of Bodnar and continues to back him because he's shown leadership and is willing to learn.

"If we don't drive him out, I think he'll be here a long time and have a lot to contribute," Shanley said.

However, she also said the administration has been hamstrung by the lack of an academic provost, and the president still needs to understand UM as a community of educators. 

"That isn't clear yet to the president," Shanley said.

***

Enrollment remains a top concern on campus and in the community, and higher education officials have subjected recruitment strategies at UM to a whipsaw.

In summer 2016, the Montana Board of Regents hired UM's first enrollment vice president, and UM saw a bump in freshman enrollment last fall. But prior to a reorganization this year that combined enrollment and communications, Bodnar notified the enrollment vice president his contract would not be renewed.

Some faculty and students have praised the way the reorganization brings together student services under one umbrella. But enrollment indicators for the fall are not positive, and in recent weeks, faculty have said they want a plan for recruitment, not just reductions.

"I am highly, highly concerned about enrollment," said Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman. "I believe that letting Tom (Crady, enrollment vice president) go without a clear plan was concerning, and I think it's hurt us."

Dean Comer said he too is worried about the number of students at UM.

"I was pretty pleased to see that we stopped dropping last year with our freshman class, and obviously, I'm concerned," Comer said. "I think everybody is. And we're hoping we can — how do we say it? — do something that is pretty remarkable and still have a pretty decent entering class.

"I don't know how realistic that is. If it isn't, we'll have to get after it incredibly fast for the coming year."

Already, though, Bowman said the administration is working incredibly hard to register students for the fall and summer.

***

President Bodnar anticipates naming a new vice president for enrollment and communication next month, and he said the administration has also started new activities to increase the number of accepted applicants who actually enroll at UM.

UM loses some 30 percent of its students from freshman to sophomore year, and Bodnar has said it's just as important to keep current students at UM as it is to enroll new students. Retention not only helps the student complete an education, he said an improvement to retention of four points would translate into $4 million for UM.

"We're pushing hard to get new students here. But just as importantly, we're working hard on our retention efforts," Bodnar said.

Bodnar is still forming his cabinet. He has moved quickly on the search for the new enrollment and communications vice president, and he made good on his pledge to bring on a provost with deep experience in higher education, starting the search even before he took the reins. Jon Harbor of Purdue University meets the qualifications, and he's impressing the campus.

ASUM vice president Welch said she's eager to see Bodnar's business background coupled with Harbor's strength in academia: "I'm so excited to see that dynamic."

This year, a list of the top 1 percent of scientists in the world included three Montanans, all with UM affiliations. UM's wildlife biology program has been ranked tops in the nation, and the creative writing program has a national reputation with two Pulitzer winners in the last three years, although faculty fear proposed budget cuts mean the latter's demise is near.

In the weeks and months ahead, Bodnar said he is going to challenge the campus to think big about delivering education and to think differently about how to shape programs of distinction such as creative writing. He's going to continue to collaborate with the wider community to bring town and gown closer together.

So far, he said, the best moments on the job are ones with students, who are enthusiastic and positive about their education. So he's going to keep working to ensure perceptions of UM align with reality and prospective students understand the university's great offerings.

"I do believe UM can be a national model for what a flagship research university can look like," Bodnar said.

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University of Montana, higher education