University of Montana: Bodnar set for inauguration with mission of service, success

“You have to look at the college experience as a holistic one,” University of Montana president Seth Bodnar said. “There’s not just the experience in the classroom and then what happens outside of the classroom. Coming to college is a transformative experience.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With the inauguration of the University of Montana’s 19th president set for Friday, Seth Bodnar has designed a weekend focused on community involvement and alumni, student and faculty recognition.

In an interview, Bodnar said he wants to set a different tone for his presidency, not only with the inauguration but in planning the institution’s future.

The inauguration will span two days, with a series of events christened “Inauguration Weekend: A Celebration of Service.”

“The reality is, the University of Montana has never been about one person,” Bodnar said. “The University of Montana is really about the collective impact that we have together. With this inauguration, I really want to focus it on that, and not on any one person.”

An exhibit highlighting public service-driven alumni, students and faculty will be displayed in the University Center, and a volunteer event will aim to pack 8,000 meals for families around Missoula just after Bodnar’s installment ceremony.

Paula Short, director of communications at UM, said the entire weekend will cost about $2,400. Previous inaugurations cost tens of thousands of dollars, she said. Archived programs for past inaugurations show that some included orchestras, elegant dinners, dances, and special lectures from governors and mayors. Bodnar’s installation ceremony will be 15 minutes, sans lengthy speeches and political addresses.

“I decided together with our team, rather than celebrate the impact of one person with this inauguration, I wanted to acknowledge, certainly the leadership transition, but use this transition to celebrate the collective impact of the University of Montana and to celebrate the spirit of service to which so many at the University of Montana are committed,” Bodnar said.

Since his first day on the job last January, Bodnar said he has been planning initiatives to implement in the near future, focusing on student success, recruitment and retention. Improving each UM student’s overall college experience is his goal, he said.

“Really what it comes down to is, the president often asks the team, ‘what does the world need from a university today?’ I believe that every decision that he makes and his vision is very much tied up in answering that question,” Short said.

In the short term, the administration intends to hire a vice provost for student success aimed at helping improve student rates of retention and degree completion, while also ensuring a student’s experience at the university is beneficial both in the classroom and out.

Students spend about 15 percent of their time in class, while 85 percent is spent outside of instruction.

“You have to look at the college experience as a holistic one,” Bodnar said. “There’s not just the experience in the classroom and then what happens outside of the classroom. Coming to college is a transformative experience.”

Integrating both an academic adviser and a faculty mentor for each student can help with degree completion, he said. Pushing a campaign to encourage aspiring students to return to college is another strategy.

Provost Jon Harbor introduced a plan in September that enacts a $5 million reduction in the instructional budget by 2021, emphasizing strategic investments in some programs or cuts or the elimination of others. Bodnar said that while enrollment is down, the school is still investing in students.

About 22 faculty volunteered to retire by 2021, which will not only help implement the budget strategy, but will also allow departments to reconfigure their staffing, Short said.

“We have a smaller overall student body than we did a decade ago, so we’re a smaller institution, but we’re a higher-quality institution in a lot of ways as well,” Bodnar said. “Relative to what we spent on instruction a decade ago, if you look at it on a per-student basis, with our new budget, we’re actually spending 14 percent more per student on instruction.”

Bodnar is currently visiting school districts in the Flathead Valley, talking to principals, superintendents and students about ways to better engage them in recruitment and making the process more accessible.

“What are the ways we can make sure students understand the myriad of options available and that we help them to navigate this decision-making process in a way that, yes is financially optimal for students, but also gives them the skills and education that they want for their life?” Bodnar asked. “We need to do a better job than we’ve done in past years in both understanding the student need and being clear in communicating and making it an easy seamless process for them to get here.”

A full list of events during the inauguration weekend can be found here.