State of the University: Bodnar says UM must be ‘flagship for America’s future’

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar presented a State of the University address Tuesday, August 20, 2019, at the Montana Theater on the UM campus in Missoula. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Erosion of civil discourse, the hollowing of the middle class, technological advances in the workplace, impacts of climate change, displacement of workers, the rise of nationalism and the power of information to drive misperceptions and sow discord are among the challenges touched on by University of Montana President Seth Bodnar during his yearly State of the University address Tuesday.

And he kept going.

“In the midst of this, we’re seeing new models of education emerge,” Bodnar said. “For-profit entities rising and falling, companies doing massive retraining of their workers, creating their own ‘universities.’ Companies like Amazon are spending millions of dollars to educate their own employees. These are signs that the economy’s demands for skills may be outpacing our current educational models.”

“And while the data show that the value of a college degree has never been greater,” he said, “we’re still seeing people question whether college is worth it. Here in Montana, around 40 percent of high school graduates are not continuing on to higher education immediately after high school.” 

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Bodnar insisted that higher education is more important than it’s ever been.  

“This country needs institutions like UM to tackle, head on, the societal challenges we face,” he said. “This moment calls for us to expand our conception of what a university can and should be.” 

In his address, Bodnar highlighted the “tangible actions” he’s taken to “move the University of Montana from a position of uncertainty to a position of stability,” and how, over the coming years, he hopes to “transition from stability to growth.” 

Bodnar said when he took the helm of UM a year and a half ago, the university was facing uncertainties in budgeting and staffing levels, leadership challenges, lack of clarity and “perhaps a feeling of drift.” 

“We were, in some ways, a ship without its sail up, buffeted a bit by the waves and lacking a common sense of direction,” he said. “But over the course of the past year, we’ve made steady, consistent headway in addressing our challenges.”

Bodnar said UM has reduced its structural budget deficit by more than 60 percent and revamped new student orientation, hiring additional advisors and redesigning the advising process to ensure a “consistent, high-quality experience for every student” and boost student retention. 

“We are setting an ambitious goal to raise our first-year retention rates over the net few years above 80 percent,” Bodnar said, “and our six-year graduation rate to 60 percent.” 

To improve excellence and innovation in teaching, learning and research, which Bodnar called the “core activities” of the university, UM launched a Teaching Excellence Initiative that included a Mobile Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching held in June and attended by 21 faculty members and six graduate students. 

With the development of high-impact and accessible learning experiences online, and new innovative summer offerings, Bodnar said summer enrollment grew by 17 percent last year and grew yet again this year, with 489 students completing their degree requirements over the summer. 

He also discussed the development of “new pathways” for education, such a opportunities for Helena College students to complete a paralegal studies program at Missoula College, a new pre-med pathway, and new ways to earn engineering degrees.

Regarding research, Bodnar said UM set a new record last year with $90.6 million in research expenditures, and set a new goal of $100 million.

“But this is not just about numbers,” Bodnar said. “The research conducted at UM matters for society.”  

As examples, he highlighted a National Endowment for the Humanities award to UM faculty member and historian Claire Arcenas to fund her study on the influence of John Locke’s writings on America’s political and cultural history, and a $3.3 million contract from the National Institutes of Health awarded to Jay Evans, director of UM’s Center for Translational Medicine, to develop a vaccine targeting opioid addiction.

“In the past year alone, UM researchers across disciplines published 801 papers,” Bodnar said. “Of these, the number published in the world’s top three science journals was 28, more than any other Big Sky university, including UC Davis.”

UM President Seth Bodnar

Bodnar also emphasized the need to improve inclusion, equality and professional development at UM. He discussed the recent launch of a Women’s Leadership Initiative, and said UM is planning to create an Office of Organizational Training and Development to address “an unacceptable gap in professional development opportunities for faculty and staff.” 

UM is also planning improvements for the Student Advocacy Resource Center, Disability Student Services, and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. 

“To help advance and integrate our various efforts,” Bodnar said, “we’ve committed to hiring a director of diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

He said UM has also hired a tribal outreach specialist to “build supportive pathways for Native American students to UM from tribal colleges and tribal high schools.” 

The university is also “partnering to help grow the economic health of Missoula and the state,” Bodnar said. 

UM’s joint endeavor with the Advanced Technology Group and Cognizant is an excellent example, he said.  

“Over the past six months, the All-In-Missoula Program graduated 54 students in two cohorts of a 12-week training program that was jointly designed by Advanced Technology and our business faculty,” Bodnar said. “Every single one of these graduates immediately transitioned into high-paying, local technology jobs.” 

In addition, Bodnar said 584 UM students participated in local internships last year, earning more than $600,000 in wages, with many being offered employment at their internship sites. 

Also last year, 3,132 UM students contributed 103,934 hours of service to the Missoula community through 115 partner organizations, creating $2.6 million in economic impact.

Although Bodnar did not give specific recruitment and enrollment numbers during his state of the university address, he did say that UM has implemented a comprehensive strategic enrollment plan designed to attract, recruit, admit and retain students.

“Last year, we uncovered ways our infrastructure was simply not working,” he said. “We had good, hard-working team members, but we’d underinvested, and the underlying software and operational infrastructure was not functioning. We weren’t getting our story out there.” 

That’s changing, Bodnar said. 

“Overall enrollment does not turn in the span of a year, and it will not this year,” he said. “The way to get there is through incremental growth – to grow our class of incoming students of every type, including graduate, transfer and non-degree seeking students. We have three weeks until census, and initial indicators look promising. We have transformed many of our admissions and orientation processes, and this will bear fruit over the coming years.”   

Bodnar’s call to the community: “To shape a University of Montana that is not just the flagship university of this great state, but a flagship for America’s future, an institution that creates inclusive prosperity and sustains democracy.”