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Seth Bodnar

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar outlines his priorities to a gathering of students at the UC Ballroom in early 2018.

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar is creating a chief of staff position, citing the need for a "key partner" in being effective and intentional in his areas of focus.

The recruitment of a new staff member is unusual for a couple of reasons. It comes on the heels of voluntary severance offers accepted by some 84 staff members, and the elimination of 12 lecturers, made because UM needs to continue to cut the budget due to declining enrollment.

The position is advertised at $75,000, but Bodnar said the hire would not increase the budget in the president's office. 

"I am sensitive to our campus-wide need to be extremely cost-conscious as we work to alleviate our budget challenges, and will structure the office to align with the resources available in the (2018 fiscal year) budget," Bodnar wrote in a message to the campus. He reiterated to the Missoulian the plan to hire within budget.

The hire also appears atypical because the job description calls for a skill more frequently seen advertised off campus, "an acute emotional intelligence required to effectively communicate the position of the president on a multitude of issues."

Jennifer Muller, managing partner and co-founder of Academic Career and Executive Search, said higher education has started to call for "soft skills," following a long-time trend in other workplaces.

"As campuses look at candidates, they've begun to assess them in a much greater sense and more in depth, shall we say," Muller said.

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The Missoulian asked why the time was right for a new staff member in light of other budget concerns at UM. Bodnar provided a prepared response through communications director Paula Short and briefly discussed the matter.

The president said his office is going to operate within its current budget, and he said he needs a chief of staff to help allocate time, focus on issues and restructure his office to meet priorities.

The personnel budget in the president's office is $258,918 for five positions including a student/temp and excluding the president's $314,000 salary, according to Short; she said the new hire would be made within the current budget. The office's financial analyst and events coordinator took buyouts this year, she said.

According to the job description, the chief of staff's responsibilities will include preparing the president for meetings, managing staff in the office, monitoring financial accounts, providing "substantive insight" into the president's dealings with stakeholders such as business and academic groups, and liaising with shared governance groups.

"The chief of staff is not an executive, cabinet-level position," said Bodnar in the statement. "As mentioned in the job posting, this position is responsible for the general operations of the president's office and charged with management of various administrative matters.

"The chief of staff is expected to assist the president in effectively allocating his time and efforts to the areas and issues most important to the overall success of the university."

In the announcement to the campus, the president also noted he would be hiring an internal candidate.

"With the abundance of talent on our campus, I know that an internal recruitment will yield a qualified applicant pool, and, ultimately a great selection," Bodnar said in the email.

The call for emotional intelligence might affect the entire organization, according to Muller, with Academic Career and Executive Search.

"If you think about the interactions of individuals within an organization, if everybody is mindful about others' thoughts and feelings, (and) they're cognizant of how they're communicating information, I think that makes for a much more positive and effective workplace," Muller said.

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Faculty Senate Chair Mary-Ann Bowman said the hire presented a difficult situation. She supports the decision because it's good for students in the end, but she also sees it in the context of staffing shortages.

Generally, she said UM has a new president who needs help navigating the academic environment. Bodnar started at UM in January, and he comes directly from corporate leadership, not academia.

"Therefore, for the good of the University of Montana and those we serve, I can support a chief of staff that would help President Bodnar better understand the demands, the nuances, the standards and the relational nature of life at a university," said Bowman, who emailed a statement and also talked with the Missoulian. "In fact, maybe that is a good way to think of that role — as a translator — and yes, such a position is needed, in my opinion."

She's hearing mixed responses from campus members about the recruitment, and she said the difficulty lies in the staffing reductions at UM.

"The VSO (voluntary severance offer) means that employees all over campus are doing more with less, while still maintaining our absolute commitment to students," Bowman said. "The idea of adding a position to one office — even an important one that lost staff with the VSO — is tough given the other needs on campus."

Staff Senate President Maria Mangold said she is interested to see how the chief of staff position fits in with the others in the president's office, and she's pleased the recruitment is internal.

"I'm encouraged he wanted to limit the pool to people who have institutional knowledge and who are already here," Mangold said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.