If leadership is about rising to the occasion, it follows that there must be an occasion to rise to. So University of Montana President Seth Bodnar approached his first message to campus as a chance to make the case that UM is at a “critical juncture” and faces a “defining moment.”
A quick archive search shows that observers have been placing UM at a “critical juncture” for years. The Missoulian said so in 2015, administration critics said it in the days after Bodnar’s predecessor, Royce Engstrom, was fired, and Board of Regents chair Fran Albrecht said it in August, as the search that found Bodnar neared its conclusion.
“We see that there are some decisions ahead, OK?” Bodnar told a ballroom full of UM staff on the morning of Jan. 31. “I would tell you we also have incredible opportunities. And in this defining moment we, as a community, have a choice. We have a choice to drift, to defer decisions, to let external forces shape our future. Or we have a choice to jointly align on a clear path and own our future.”
He then pushed the rhetoric further, riffing on UM’s 125-year history by encouraging the audience to help chart a path that will sustain the university “not just for 125 more years, but for 1,025 more years.” His slide deck promptly crashed. Bodnar said “uh oh,” and the crowd laughed off the technical difficulty.
The reaction moment was a testament to Bodnar’s charisma, which he’s quickly shown as one of his strengths. The trait has been particularly welcomed by Griz faithful, for whom Engstrom’s bookish demeanor never seemed to rise quite to the occasion. Bodnar’s Jan. 3 introductory campus-wide email summarizing the “defining moment” idea received mostly rave reviews on eGriz forums. “Leadership…. What a refreshing concept,” one poster wrote.
Bodnar is certainly making good on his pledge to be a visible president ahead of budget-cutting decisions. He taped a welcome video to students and played it cool with student newspaper reporters who asked if he smoked weed at West Point (he says he didn’t). He tweets from campus functions, and he and his wife, Chelsea, a Missoula native, mingled at the Missoula Art Museum’s Jan. 3 charity auction like belles of the ball.
The media savvy Bodnar also hosted the press for a private recitation of his hour-long campus speech, which he had memorized virtually to the word. The presentation revealed that UM faces a $3.5 million shortfall next year, which will grow to $10 million by 2022. Bodnar said he plans to make up the “majority” of the gap by increasing revenue, which UM has failed to do in recent years, with the rest to be patched over with one-time funds until those “decisions,” i.e., cuts, put the budget back into balance.
Bodnar said he wants UM to find its “north star” so it can make those cuts smartly. The metaphor is borrowed from faculty union president Paul Haber, who used it in his public critiques of UM’s most recent planning process. It wasn’t the only borrowed idea: Bodnar’s whole presentation could be understood as his attempt to put a bow on ideas that have long been floating around the university.
Bodnar’s honeymoon seemed, at first, to come to an abrupt end when it was revealed Feb. 1 that UM initially obscured its firing of women’s soccer coach Mark Plakorus. Plakorus’ behavior had generated complaints from his players for years, and he had been found to have texted Las Vegas escort services from his university phone, but the university first announced his departure simply as a resignation.
During his public addresses, Bodnar reiterated a commitment to transparency and student safety. Hearing that, Missoulian editor Kathy Best says she decided to email Bodnar, suggesting to him that those priorities appeared to be in opposition to the university’s handling of Plakorus, given the allegations against him, which the paper was still trying to confirm.
Less than 24 hours later, the university came clean about the reasons for Plakorus’ departure. Bodnar claimed he hadn’t discussed the initial press release with Athletic Director Kent Haslam, but he quickly emailed the campus acknowledging that the university should do better. A few days later, the same newspaper that prodded him toward transparency applauded the new president.
“Bodnar deserves all due credit for ensuring that this incident was not kept covered up,” the paper wrote in a Feb. 5 editorial, calling it “a good first step.”