The business executive vying to become the next University of Montana president was a finalist last year for a UM deanship, the Indy has learned.
The information, which Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian heard secondhand and shared with members of the presidential search committee, was not mentioned as part of Seth Bodnar's public introduction and wasn't discussed during his interviews, according to the commissioner's spokesperson. But it helps shed light on how an unconventional candidate became a finalist for UM's top job.
Bodnar, currently a senior executive at GE Transportation, confirmed in an email that he applied for the open deanship at UM's School of Business Administration in 2016. He said he eventually withdrew from consideration because GE began acquiring two outside companies and he "didn't feel it was appropriate for me as a leader to leave my position at the time." He did not respond to a follow-up question about when he withdrew.
Bodnar lists two 2016 business acquisitions on his public C.V., which correspond to news reports of GE deals with ShipXpress in September and Iders, Inc. in December. UM announced Chris Shook as the new SoBA dean on May 26.
Highlights from Bodnar's resume include a Rhodes Scholarship in 2001, commanding infantry and Green Berets overseas and rising through the ranks of GE's locomotive business. He has garnered the most public intrigue of UM's four presidential finalists, fielding questions from a full theater and overflow room during his Sept. 22 campus forum.
Some have questioned his qualifications to lead a flagship university, since he lacks a doctoral degree and counts a two-year stint as assistant professor at West Point as his only higher-education work experience. "On paper, he's just not university material," says UM professor Mehrdad Kia, who expressed dissatisfaction with all four finalists in a recent letter to the editor signed by 25 administration critics.
But the impression Bodnar made as a dean candidate may have helped him in his application for president. Presidential search committee member and professor Diana Six says a fellow member, whom she did not identify, spoke highly of Bodnar during one of the group's meetings, explaining that he was a "top contender" for the dean job, but that the university was unable to negotiate a deal.
"The fact that this person on the committee had seen his performance during that interview and had been really impressed kind of made us decide [that] maybe we should give him a shot," she says.
Finalists in the SoBA dean search were not announced publicly, and Roberta Evans, who chaired the search, was out of town and did not respond to an email. Commissioner's office spokesperson Kevin McRae declined to provide details about Bodnar's dean application, but an individual who spoke to the Indy on the condition of anonymity claims to have attended a meeting with Bodnar during the candidate's visit as a finalist.
Christian mentioned Bodnar's previous candidacy to the search committee "only as a piece of trivia," McRae says, "because we don't ask candidates what jobs they've applied for."