092317 um president candidate bodnar kw.jpg

Seth Bodnar, a candidate for president of the University of Montana, speaks at a forum for the Faculty Senate. "This ought to be the premier flagship university in the mountain West," Bodnar told the gathering.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

We don't know what it takes to graduate first in your class at West Point. Or to become a Rhodes scholar. Or to get degrees from Oxford (yes, the Oxford University).

We don't know how running a large portion of the manufacturing giant GE translates to running higher education in Montana.

However, we're willing to throw our support to Seth Bodnar who will become the 18th President of the University of Montana.

Bodnar was easily the most nontraditional of the four finalists to interview for the position. He wasn't an unknown candidate, though. He had previously turned down an offer to become the dean of the University of Montana School of Business Administration. 

His appointment has left some traditionalists and alumni stunned — a university president without a doctorate?

Gasp.

We don't mean to poo-pooh a terminal academic degree, but let's face it: Universities and colleges throughout the nation are struggling to convince students to go deeply into debt for a college education, while at the same time being nimble enough to change programs of study to meet a dynamic global workforce.

In other words, just having a leader with a Ph.d., doesn't guarantee an academic institution success. A doctorate does not confer any special leadership qualities or secret playbook of higher education management.

That being said, we also believe it takes a special circumstance to appoint a leader who doesn't have a doctorate. After all, the University of Montana, like all higher educational institutions, is just that, a place where learning and education is valued above all else. A doctorate demonstrates a commitment to taking the education to the highest level. 

Bodnar has two master's degrees from Oxford University. Not that two master's degrees equals one doctorate, but it's not like he is unfamiliar with higher education or is somehow intellectually deficient.

While an outside, informed perspective is important, there is one very serious pitfall, and it's one that we've seen repeated in other settings.

So often we hear politicians who come from a business background say they believe government should run more like business. And while there are certainly lessons and principles that can be helpful, applying a rate of return on something like public education can be tricky. Or applying business principles to foster care is illogical because helping struggling families can be inefficient, time-consuming and the return unknown for years.

Likewise in higher education, GE is not Missoula. Success in one arena cannot guarantee it in another. In other words, we don't want our stock broker to be our surgeon.

We'd argue the University of Montana is so much more than a business. It's a state treasure, and sometimes its service to students may be more than just a game of numbers. Liberal arts, for example, which doesn't seem to be as in demand as the "STEM" (science, technology, engineering and math) still must have a place in our society and be encouraged. A liberal arts approach in an increasingly fractured and specialized world must be tirelessly defended, something that is hard to justify on a balance sheet.

Still, we believe that Bodnar's experiences at GE and in the military could provide fresh insight to an institution that is clearly struggling.

Bodnar will inherit a university that will likely be facing significant tuition increases for the second year in a row. 

Meanwhile, the University of Montana has seen enrollment decline by 24 percent since 2011, a staggering number. This is a number that can't easily be explained when UM's rival, Montana State University, has seen enrollment increasing for 10 years in a row.

Just last week, UM reported a 4.5 percent drop in overall enrollment even though university officials tried to spin the news in a more positive direction by pointing out freshmen enrollment grew by 2 percent. Put another way: Increases in incoming students couldn't even keep pace with the numbers who were leaving.

And, in May and June, more than 100 employees took early retirement options in an effort to save more than $4 million.

Clearly what has been tried so far still continues to show — at best — tepid results. For those people worried about Bodnar's academic bonafides, maybe it's time to let someone beyond a classroom have a crack at a problem that has seemed to vex those with higher education credentials. In short, do we really think Bodnar will do less just because he's not been a member of a faculty senate?

No.

These are troubling trends and we're still unclear on UM's long-term strategy to turn these statistics around. The university will need Bodnar's fresh ideas and innovation to reverse the slide. Bodnar will have to use some of that creativity and nimbleness that he undoubtedly acquired in business to transform the university because it's been seven difficult years of decline. The margin for error grows more narrow with each day.

Welcome to Montana, Mr. Bodnar. You've got a lot of work to do. 

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