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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 encountered a couple of surprises when he took the helm of the flagship last month.

One surprise?

"On the unequivocally good side, the passion for this place," Bodnar said.

A more challenging eye-opener? The distrust people have of public institutions such as UM, coupled with the flagship's responsibility to be clear and transparent — and to be clear and transparent quickly.

"The complexity of meeting those objectives is tougher than I thought," Bodnar said.

Monday, UM's 19th president spoke at City Club Missoula to a full house at the Hilton DoubleTree Edgewater with an estimated 210 people, including business leaders and lawmakers. City Club has a mission to inform and inspire citizens on vital community issues through its public forums.

Called "Imagining a University of Montana for the Future," Bodnar's talk reflected some of the messages he's shared with the campus and community in other presentations about the strength of the campus and its ability to educate students to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

The City Club forum includes a chance for participants to ask the presenter questions and, in response to an audience member's question, Bodnar offered comments on the surprises he found at UM. Additionally, he addressed questions about enrollment, the town and gown relationship, and entrepreneurship. 

Ideal enrollment is "probably a few thousand more students than we have right now," Bodnar said. Enrollment has been declining at UM since 2010, although last fall, the campus identified indications the tide is turning, such as an uptick in freshman admissions.

"I have asked that question, and I don't have the full answer yet," Bodnar said of the ideal head count for UM.

At the same time, he said he's laying out a four-year plan with enrollment targets. "Unfettered growth" isn't the goal for the long term, he said, but the campus is focused on a "blitz" for the fall of 2018 and isn't setting a ceiling for the next school year.

One participant wanted to know how the relationship between the campus and wider community "might be better optimized," and Bodnar said he'd appreciate insight from those in the room. He also offered some suggestions.

For starters, he said he'd like everyone, not just on campus but in the city, to feel as though Missoula is "rolling out the red carpet" for prospective students and parents. Maybe students can wear lanyards so community members can identify them, welcome them and offer discounts downtown, for instance.

Bodnar also said he wanted to create stronger ties for internships and experiences in business for students that enhance their classroom learning. And he encouraged members of the community to take advantage of the wide array of cultural and intellectual and artistic events UM offers.

"I'd encourage you all to participate, not just when Pearl Jam comes," Bodnar joked.

In his answer, he requested help from those in the room to start spreading the message about UM so perceptions off campus align with reality. He said part of his job is to brag about the flagship's faculty and students, and he wants help from others in the community.

"You all, especially in this room, are talking about Missoula. You're talking about your businesses. You're traveling around. I want you to talk about the University of Montana, too," Bodnar said.

In response to a question about where he wants to make investments and foster entrepreneurship, Bodnar said it's no accident that Silicon Valley grew up around Stanford University. Likewise, he said UM is an excellent university in a city with great technology, and he wants to nurture the dynamic.

"How do we catalyze that ecosystem in the most effective way that we can?"

In his presentation, Bodnar talked about the need for people in the world to adapt. He said the largest taxi owner in the world, Uber, owns no cabs; the largest accommodations provider, Airbnb, owns no real estate; and one of the most influential media companies, Facebook, creates no content.

"So this is a world full of disruption. This is a world in which students have to adapt. They have to innovate," Bodnar said.

As a former executive at General Electric and previous Green Beret and military officer, Bodnar has seen two massive organizations face challenges that required adaptation. One idea in the military is that if you seize key terrain, you win the war, he said, but in Iraq, the military had to write a new playbook.

"The key terrain in this case was the Iraqi people. That was a key insight for the U.S. military," Bodnar said.

At GE, company leaders needed to learn how to make software just as important as hardware, and he was tasked with creating a software business inside GE's rail operation.

UM is educating students who can navigate those seismic shifts in industry because of its diverse strengths, from professional schools to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas to the arts, humanities and social sciences, he said. And he said part of his job is to assess its strengths in order to continually seek and drive excellence.

"What we're doing is so important that we have to be clear about where we're going to focus. We have to be intentional. We have to be bold," Bodnar said.

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University of Montana, higher education