This is going to be a pivotal year for the University of Montana.
Earlier this month, UM marked its official Charter Day with awards and other events meant to honor the connections between the university and the Missoula community. The university has undergone a number of sea changes over the course of the 125 years since it was chartered by the Montana Legislature in 1893. In 2018, even as the campus and wider community reflect on those many changes and celebrates the university’s many achievements, we are poised to help turn the university in a new direction.
UM has spent the past year undergoing an intensive process designed to identify its priorities and re-align its resources to reflect those priorities. And now, it has a new president, Seth Bodnar, in place to oversee that re-alignment, along with the usual duties that face the president of a university that has struggled mightily in recent years to overcome serious problems rooted in diminished reputation, enrollment and funding.
Bodnar has been in Missoula for only a short while but has already taken pains to speak directly and candidly both on campus and out in the wider community. And he is setting a refreshing new tone that speaks to a changing culture at UM.
Unfortunately, not everyone on campus appears to be on board with these changes. The recent nit-picking at the details of Bodnar’s resumé are a recent case in point.
Some faculty leaders have homed in on the choice of words Bodnar used to describe some of his prior jobs. On Thursday, the Faculty Senate’s executive committee used a portion of its meeting to discuss the matter, concluding that it now considers the issue closed and restating their general support for the new president.
This was after Bodnar had already addressed the basis of their concerns via an email distributed to faculty leadership and shared with the Missoulian, in which he admitted that some of the terms he used in his resumé could be clarified and promised to update it with “conventions typical of an academically-oriented CV (curriculum vitae)."
Bodnar comes from a military and private business background, rather than an academic one. Indeed, his experiences outside the realm of academia were among the reasons he was chosen to lead the university. While Bodnar does boast two master’s degrees from the University of Oxford, and is a Rhodes scholar and West Point class valedictorian besides, previous UM presidents have held doctorate degrees and were deeply steeped in the administration of higher education. Bodnar marks a departure from this tradition.
Still, he has been ready and willing to make adjustments to a more academic setting. The academics at UM should follow his example and show their own willingness to open themselves to different ways of doing things.
Until they do, they come across as stubborn and petty, unnecessarily hung up on the details and missing the bigger picture. That kind of attitude, if it persists, will only erode their support on campus and in the larger community.
Campus- and community-wide support will undoubtedly help determine how successful UM is in the future. This doesn’t mean everyone must agree on every point with campus leadership. But it does mean that disagreements and important discussions should focus on the substantial issues facing the university.
Whether Bodnar described himself as an “instructor” or an “assistant professor” on his resumé does not seem like a matter worth wasting much time. If being an assistant professor was the featured accomplishment of Bodnar’s career, an employer might understandably demand more clarity and precision about that position. But Bodnar’s professional background includes far more compelling achievements. So what was the point of delving into such details now? How does this help the university?
Speaking to a City Club Missoula gathering earlier this month, Bodnar touched on the distrust he was surprised to discover existed toward public institutions such as UM. He conceded that transparency has turned out to be a more complicated than he had first expected.
Interestingly, in recognizing these challenges, Bodnar has already done much to restore public trust in UM. He’s not only made transparency and accountability key values for his administration, he has led by example.
For one thing, he was instrumental in getting the university to own up to the real circumstances regarding the recent firing of Women’s Soccer Coach Mark Plakorus, even as he himself was learning the details of the dismissal. While respectful of the individuals involved, Bodnar was upfront about how the termination of Plakorus’ contract was described to him, and how it was conveyed to the community.
He has been equally upfront about how the details of his own employment history have been conveyed. When questioned about perceived discrepancies on his resumé, which was fully vetted by a consulting firm and a presidential search committee prior to his hiring by the Board of Regents, Bodnar acknowledged that some of the terms were not as precise as they could have been, and pledged to update them to more academic expectations.
That was a generous move on his part. At this point, the focus of the university faculty and administration would be better directed toward overcoming its challenges and optimizing its future, instead of looking for reasons to find fault with their new president.
It’s one thing to hold a leader accountable for his decisions — and his mistakes. It’s another to quibble over inconsequential details when more important matters are pressing for attention.