9 October 2017 — 1355 mdt
Seth Bodnar signs on as captain of a sinking ship
The University of Montana once was the state’s flagship university. Now that designation belongs to Montana State University. UM has become a sinking ship, its enrollment and reputation declining. No one seems to know why, let alone how to arrest and reverse the decline.
But 38-year-old Seth Bodnar, a West Pointer without a doctorate, and UM’s new head honcho, is going to give it a try. Everyone in Montana wishes him well, for he faces a challenge his new office may not have the power to meet.
If UM is declining because of things the university has done and/or not done, Bodnar might, if provided the resources necessary, be able to arrest and reverse the decline.
But if UM’s decline results in part from Missoula’s comparing unfavorably with Bozeman as a college town, Bodnar faces a problem a university president lacks the direct power to solve.
Fundamentally, the problem may be as simple as Bozeman’s being a nicer place to live. It’s sunnier. Two years ago, the Washington Post produced an interactive map displaying the solar energy received by each of the Lower 48 States’ 3,111 counties. Here’s how Gallatin and Missoula compare:
Bozeman is a fast growing technology and recreation center believed to have a high level of public safety. Missoula is an old timber town, its logging and smokejumper heydays behind it, with a reputation, possibly unearned, as a panhandler’s paradise with a rape culture on and off campus. Where would you rather send your daughter to college? Where would she prefer to attend college?
Bodnar can plugs the holes in his sinking ship and start pumping out the water. But he cannot command Missoula’s tide to stop falling. He cannot command Mother Nature to bless Missoula with more sunshine. He can use his bully pulpit as a university president to help Missoula conduct an economic and cultural renaissance, but that’s a long term project that won’t pay dividends for years, and that even if successful might not make Missoula as attractive a college community as Bozeman.
Bodnar brings the energy, optimism, and hope, of youth to the job. Those qualities should be a tonic to the university’s demoralized students, faculty, and staff. I wish him good luck as UM chief. He’s going to need it.