EAB’s Ed Venit is joined by University of Montana President Seth Bodnar who talks about his unorthodox journey to higher education leadership. A West Point graduate and former Green Beret, Seth shares strategies he has used to grow enrollment, improve student retention, and help UM achieve R1 classification as a research university.
He and Ed also discuss why declining college-going rates place the US at a competitive disadvantage and threaten national security.
0:00:11.9 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. In today's episode, we are joined by University of Montana President Seth Bodnar. He shares his unique career journey and addresses critical issues institutions are facing to keep students on track.
0:00:32.7 Ed Venit: Hello, and welcome once again to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Ed Venit, I'm a managing director here, and I spend most of my time thinking about student success, the ways that students tick and ways institutions will support students now and really into the future as they're pursuing college degrees. We're gonna talk a lot about that today, but we're gonna go even a little bit broader than that, because today we have the very good fortune of having a guest on the podcast who is here to share a bit about his unique journey from West Point to Oxford, to being a Green Beret, back to West Point, and then through the executive ranks at GE, and now finally as the President of the University of Montana. So join me in welcoming Seth Bodnar to Office Hours.
0:01:19.5 Seth Bodnar: Hey, Ed. It's great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
0:01:23.1 EV: I'm sure you get asked this a lot to tell your story all the time, but I think it bears repeating here to the extent that your military and corporate careers must have helped prepare you in many ways for a leadership role, or really in any endeavor. But I wonder about the adjustments you've made, you had to make going through this unique journey that you had through the military, through academia, through corporate America, and now where you are. So just take me back all the way back to West Point, even further back if you wanna go, and tell us a little bit about your journey and your biography and how it shaped you.
0:01:56.7 SB: Yeah. Well, thanks. I've had a bit of a different background perhaps than more traditional university presidents, which of course, presents challenges, presents opportunities. But I've been very lucky throughout my career to have a lot of opportunities, both to practice leadership and also learn from others. I tell a story every year on the first day of orientation to our freshmen, and I tell them the story because I know a lot of them are nervous, a lot of them are feeling like, "Hey, I'm not cut out for this," and I wanna make them feel like, "Hey, that's not abnormal." And I tell them about my first day at West Point and I tell them that I remember absolutely nothing about that day except for two things.
0:02:45.4 SB: And one is I remember that I got a tuberculosis test which is, now, why would you remember that? It's just sort of an odd thing to remember. But I tell them I remember it because it's that test, they give you a little prick in your forearm and they say, "Come back in three days and we'll tell you the results," or two days, whatever it is. And I remember it because I remember distinctly that evening saying a prayer and saying, "Oh please, God, let this test come back positive so I can go home."
0:03:18.2 EV: Oh.
0:03:20.2 SB: 'Cause I disliked it so much and I wanted to get out of there. And I say to our freshmen here, "So if you're having a rough time, it's okay. It will get better." But the other thing I remember is that they teach you the definition of leadership, and ultimately, that's what West Point is. West Point's a leadership academy. It's a liberal arts university with a huge leadership curriculum. And for me, I've realized over the course of my career that of course, leadership is contextual. It matters, right? There's some differences and nuances in leadership, whether you're in the military, whether you're in the private sector, whether you're in a university. But there are some common themes. And you learn pretty quickly that a leader's job at the end of the day is to work to get their organization, no matter how big of it it is, aligned on a common vision, number one, number two, to set the conditions for your team to succeed, and then number three, to make sure they have the support in place that they need and that you get out of the way and let them do their job.
0:04:31.5 SB: And I found when you can do that as a leader, again, whether it's leading a global software business like I did at GE, whether it's leading a special forces team or a university, those are some common themes of leadership that I think all successful leaders that I've watched over my career have embraced and certainly things that I try to practice here at UM and in my previous opportunities to lead.
0:05:02.0 EV: One of the things I've always enjoyed about our conversations and also just knowing a little bit about your background, vis-a-vis other college presidents that I run into, and you talk to quite a few, you do have a unique background in that regard. There are a few other presidents out there like you, but not a ton. I'm wondering if you could say a little bit about maybe... I guess, we kinda got the advantages that you just brought there in terms of leadership training. What were maybe some of the disadvantages that you would have brought to the job, where you did bring to the job really, that maybe somebody who traditionally came up through the academic ranks wouldn't be feeling?
0:05:37.6 SB: Yeah. I mean, look these are tough jobs. Another leader with some military experience who had a dose of higher ed leadership obviously is Bill McRaven, has served as chancellor down at the University of Texas, and I think very famously in higher ed circles said that a president of a university's toughest job in the country. And this is coming from a four-star admiral, former Navy Seal who had led all special operations for the US military prior to serving in a leadership role in higher ed. So it's certainly a difficult role. Whether it's the hardest job in the country, I don't know. I might vote for NICU, pediatric nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, being a nurse there, perhaps a little tougher. But toughest or not, it's a challenging job.
0:06:33.5 SB: And I think in many ways, it's because you have such a diverse group of stakeholders, from not just your students, but faculty, your alumni. In a public university, you have legislators, you have the governor, you have voters. And that's the one group of stakeholders I haven't even mentioned is your board who is the one that has responsibility for hiring and firing university presidents. You have all these different stakeholders, all of them who, frankly, could make your job really difficult or make it impossible for you to do your job.
0:07:15.8 SB: And they often have competing or divergent priorities. And so you have some serious goal complexity when leading a public university. And I think that's one of the things that I've had to adapt to. In the military, yeah, you have complex missions, but you often have better alignment of what's the goal. Leading a private company or a public company, you have shareholders, you have goals that are, I think, widely understood. And I think in higher ed with different groups of stakeholders, they all have different interests. And I think you really have to work deliberately to engage those different groups of stakeholders, understand what's common about their interest, what's common about their objectives, and really try to work to crystallize the essence of what that university's there to do.
0:08:17.0 SB: And for us at the University of Montana, it's really been aligning around the summary of our university's mission in just two words, and those two words are inclusive, prosperity. I'm happy to dig into more of that. But I think that's been a challenge. I think it's a challenge for all university leaders. I think for somebody like me who, yeah, I served on faculty at West Point, but I am not an academic. And I have to be very respectful and mindful of that when working with faculty in particular.
0:08:53.1 SB: And again, doesn't mean that I can't be an effective leader, but it means that I have to recognize my non-academic background, recognize there are many things that I don't know and work to build a team around me that complements not just my strengths, but my weaknesses. And I think, again, that's true of any leader. But for somebody like me coming in with a less traditional background, I think I've had to be more mindful of that. I think it served me well. I think it's actually been an advantage for me, but it's certainly something that I have to... I've had to really be intentional about.
0:09:32.5 EV: Yeah. I often observe the sort of antagonistic relationship between the faculty and the administration at many institutions, not all institutions, of course, but a lot of that can be summarized up a little bit in, "Well, we can break through this if we had a better understanding." And I really appreciate the vulnerability that you show there in the sense of... I actually don't know the answer to this. I don't know your lives very well. Tell me about that so that I can help serve you better in that regard." I wanna come back to the inclusive, prosperity thing in just a moment, but tell me a little bit first about kind of the journey as you were first appointed. I know there's a little bit of an unusual story there. And then tell me about some of those early days, what were the expectations placed on you and some long and short-term goals?
0:10:22.6 SB: Yeah. I joined a university that had been in... Experienced a pretty substantial enrollment decline over the preceding years. Some real challenges. I came into a team after there was a interim leader for a year. We had interim leaders in the president position. We had an interim provost. We had an interim vice president for administration and finance. So really your three kinda top roles. You had interim leadership and a change in leadership in our enrollment lead. So really the majority of the leadership team was interim. And so, I think first step was, again, building that immediate leadership team, but then starting to bring the rest of the university along. Prior to my arrival, I think our university community had some really good strategic planning that had pointed us in a common direction, but I think like many institutions, both within higher ed and elsewhere, we didn't have a strong mechanism for moving, what I'd say operationalizing a vision and tracking progress.
0:11:36.0 SB: So as I came onboard, my goal was just to stabilize the institution and begin to make steady, tangible progress. And so we took what had been a strategic vision, and we really distilled that, what I call strategic thinking work into five priorities for action, and those were named very intentionally that said, "Look, what we're gonna do is focus on making steady, tangible progress." And we aligned around those five priorities for action. We've built that out over the five-year period that I've been here and eventually have created what we now have is a strategic operating rhythm that says, "Look, we as a university aren't gonna be a university that sets... Every seven or eight years does a strategic plan that is static, sits on a shelf. We're gonna align on a vision, we're gonna have priorities, but each year, we're gonna look at those and we're gonna tweak them as necessary. And each year we're gonna have a really clear playbook for the year ahead that distills those priorities into objectives and then specific projects to help us move forward." And so I think we've really spent the time to build what you might call the operating software of the organization.
0:12:57.2 EV: Yeah, that's super interesting. You can really feel both the assets you're bringing from the military background and the corporate background to that kind of short cycle strategic vision, if you will, where you keep coming back, revise, revise, revise, and it's not something I always hear about other schools doing, it's more often what you described. We have a strategic plan and then we just try to follow it for the next five years and maybe it does work, maybe it doesn't, and then we re-do it again in the future. So I love that leadership style that you're bringing there. Is the one thing from that work that you recall it as a really signature achievement like, "Hey, we're really, really proud of this," that's in place? And then the other side of that question is, is there something that is kind of a wall that you're running into that's a frustration that you can't quite make it through yet, or you're still... The challenge that's there, the hill that's still there to climb.
0:13:51.3 SB: Yeah. Well, look, I think all achievements and all challenges are shared. So as I think about achievements that we've made over the past five years, those are team achievements. And so I would say if there's one thing that I'm proud of, it's been building a team and identifying just some really strong leaders at this university to move us forward. And we've made some really good progress. We just announced our enrollment this week for the fall of 2023 and that's the largest year over year increase in enrollment since 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis when college enrollment nationally was going up.
0:14:38.4 SB: And so in the context of a pretty substantial national decline right now, that level increase is substantial. And that's really exciting. And I think key to that, I'm really proud of the way that our team has not just improved in recruiting students to come to UM, but helping them succeed. We also recorded our single, actually our best retention rate in the university's history. First to second year retention rate is the highest on record this year. Substantial improvement there. And we're doing a much better job of serving student populations that are very important to this university.
0:15:21.9 SB: We have a nearly a 30% increase in the number of Native American students here at the university over the past five years. Significant. I mean, last fall, we're still working through the data, but as of last fall, our retention rate among Native students is up 14 percentage points. And then, of course, we... Last year, we achieved Research 1 status. So that was a goal decades in the making. And our research expenditures are up nearly 55% over the past five years. We're in the largest infrastructure refresh in the university's history and it's... We don't pay too much attention to rankings, frankly, but one of the things we were surprised at on the one hand, but not on the other is that the Washington Monthly identified University of Montana for the second year in a row as the number one university in the country for community national service, which I think is a nice recognition of this community's and this university's focus on service and impact.
0:16:26.3 SB: So a lot of good things happening here at UM and a lot we have to be excited about. A lot of challenges we have. Now, on the challenge side, I think we are still wrestling with, how do we adapt our curricula? Not just our general education, but each of our majors to prepare our students really effectively for the world they're entering?
0:16:48.8 SB: We just had a two-hour session with our university leadership council last week on generative AI, right? And not just, how do we use AI to be more efficient as a university, or how do we enable students or ensure that students are still learning, but I think the tougher question is, how do we need to adapt what we're teaching to prepare students to thrive in a world in which generative AI is prevalent? And those are harder questions that I think we're wrestling with as a society. We're certainly wrestling with that as a university. And we're not done, we're not done wrestling, but we haven't solved that one, of course. And so a lot that we still need to work through.
0:17:31.6 EV: Yeah. I've been having a lot of conversations with different schools about the coming math challenge that we see emerging through K-12, this unfinished learning or learning loss, I prefer unfinished learning as a term, to be honest, that's coming our way based on stuff that students didn't learn during the pandemic and it's gonna continue on. That's gonna affect our ability to teach STEM programs in a traditional way and it's gonna force an evolution right there. And that of course, links into some of the higher tech things that you're talking about in regards... I think we can foresee some continuous evolution going on in this regard, so it's really encouraging to hear you focused on that.
0:18:11.3 EV: It's also really encouraging to hear all those fantastic numbers on enrollment, retention and the expansion of the institution, if you will. You truly are gaining some notoriety that is well-deserved. I wanna circle back a little bit to the one thing you said there about service to your community. And I'm interpreting community to be the broadest possible or narrow as possible communities. It's the people that you're around. The occasion by which this podcast came to be was an article, an op-ed that you wrote in The Washington Post this past spring that really gets to one of the heart of one of the issues that we are working on quite a bit at EAB and, frankly, across the higher education landscape, what we call non-consumption.
0:18:55.0 EV: So students who in the past may have chosen to go to college but are not, and we've seen that kind of the proportion of high school graduates that do even enroll in college straight out shrink over the last few, well, really the last decade. And of course, during the pandemic, even more so. So there's sort of a declining popularity, if you will, in college in general. So why are you convinced that not only do these declining college rates make us less competitive as a country? This was one of the big things that you put forward in that op-ed, and also potentially is a national security risk, which is an obvious thing that you would have bought from your background that it might not be so obvious to all of our listeners.
0:19:41.3 SB: Well, yeah, I mean, look, this is where I go back to my time when I spent as a faculty member. I taught economics. And you look at the long-term growth of a country, there's only a few things that determine that and it's obviously physical capital, business formation, of course, the regulatory environment, but then human capital. And human capital is a function of course, the number, but the education level. How skilled is your workforce? And there are studies that show that every additional year of schooling for the adult population raises a country's per capita GDP by 9%-10%, which would take the inverse of that is true as well. And so if we... And the stats here are pretty frightening. 2016, 70% of high school grads went on to higher education. Last fall, the data isn't out for the fall of '23, but last year, that had dropped to 62%. That's a lot of high school students that aren't going on to get further education. And again, that's not to say that you can't have a good life without a college degree. You can. There are many pathways to prosperity in this country.
0:21:04.4 SB: I wanna be very, very clear that this isn't saying everybody needs to go to college. But I would argue, and I think that the data would support that if we hope to be competitive globally as a country, not just militarily, but from an economic standpoint, college attainment is very important. And you're seeing our competitors pass us by in terms of their rates of college attainment. And so I am very worried about the future of this country and the country that we'll pass along to our kids, and whether or not they'll be able to enjoy the same standard of living that we have with, as a country, a far lower rate of educational attainment.
0:21:56.4 SB: The stats are troubling, right? At the turn of the 21st century, I think we were fourth or fifth among OECD nations in terms of educational attainment. By 2021, we were 12th. We're falling. And as I shared in that article, our competitors globally are not saying to their young people, don't get an education. And you're hearing that from too many leaders in this country, and I think that will have long-term detrimental impacts. To be clear, that's not to say that higher ed doesn't have to adapt. We do. We absolutely have to adapt. We have to listen to these frustrations, take them seriously and find ways to adapt. But at the same time, we as a country, we de-value education at our peril.
0:22:43.9 EV: Yeah, I completely agree with you on all these points. And it's... I'm someone who thinks a little bit longer term. I might be thinking about 2035 or even 2040, what does the world look like there? You and I were both in our 40s and you're a relatively young college president as college presidents go, so you'll be alive in this world hopefully at that point where we go to. And so we're kinda in this for ourselves too. We're trying to build the country that we wanna see for our future, as well as for the future of everybody who's maybe a little bit younger than us, your current students and your own kids and so on and so forth.
0:23:18.9 SB: Yeah.
0:23:20.5 EV: It's really interesting to think about it that way rather than... I think what a lot of people think about is kinda like just about one or two years out or maybe that five-year strategic plan. There's a longer view that you can take about the role that we're playing in supporting our large community of the United States in this regard.
0:23:37.9 SB: Oh, absolutely. And I think it's about more than just economic competitiveness.
0:23:42.3 EV: Oh yeah.
0:23:44.1 SB: Harry Truman once said, "Knowledge is not only key to power, it is the citadel of human freedom." And so when we are seeing a populace that has growing levels of distrust of education, and we see leaders, I think irresponsibly dissuading people from pursuing education, we're seeing some really, I think, long-term threats to people's freedom in this country as well. And that's a big statement, but I think it is that big of a crisis that we need to lean into. Higher education has been, and it needs to continue to be an engine of social mobility. But I think when we're encouraging people to avoid education, we're doing those individuals a disservice and we're doing this country a disservice.
0:24:48.9 EV: Yeah. I did a sort of a little bit of work with the report that was done by the Post-Secondary Value Commission, I don't know if you're familiar with it or not, but that came out, I think it was in 2020 based on about two years of work. There was an outrigger report done by the Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce that looked at all the studies that have ever been done relating either correlation or causation of college degrees and good stuff, if you will. Too often we talk about this and, well, we do talk about this all the time, maybe not too often, "Go to college you'll make more money in your life, or you'll advance your career," and that's a narrative that people are very comfortable and familiar with.
0:25:30.9 EV: What I was super interested in that report was also the economic benefit to the overall country, which you've touched on right there. We grow our GDP tax base and of course, reduce public expenditures that we maybe wouldn't have to expend if folks had access to that affluence that we're talking about. Then they also...
0:25:51.2 SB: Yeah. I mean, to use the economic term, it's a positive... There are positive externalities associated with education. There are benefits enjoyed by people other than the specific consumer of higher ed. And we all benefit when more people have higher degrees of educational attainment.
0:26:12.0 EV: Yeah. And they went into that too, where they talked about some of the harder to quantify things: Happiness, strong families, participation in democracy, so on and so forth. There was this whole long list of kind of good things for society, good things for people and their families and their communities, their neighbors that come along with having a more educated population. It was really meaningful for me to see that all laid out and collected there and it really drove that in.
0:26:37.6 EV: Let's talk a little bit about why that perception. You've come back to it a couple of times where we're discouraging folks from pursuing an education or at least creating a perception that this isn't a worthwhile thing for them. So let's dig into that a little bit. Why do you think these perceptions of the value of higher education are declining and how does that relate to the motivation to write the op-ed that you wrote?
0:27:01.8 SB: Yeah. Look, I think, and I wanna be really clear about this, higher ed is not perfect. And I think any president that tells you we are isn't being honest with themselves. And I think there are very few that would say they are. And I think obviously the questions around cost and student debt. I mean, we've seen tuition rates rise. That's a function on the public side of a four-decade-long trend of declining support for public higher ed, which here in the Montana University system, it used to be that about 76% of the cost of a... I mean, 30 years ago if you go back to, hit the rewind button, go back to the '90s when you and I were making college decisions, about 76% of the cost of a student's education was funded by the state. Today, that's about in the 40s, 40%-ish. So we've seen the shifting of the burden, from the broader collective to the individual. We've also seen costs in many ways escalate at higher rates than inflation and that needs to be reined in. We have to address the cost challenges in higher ed.
0:28:22.1 SB: I do think there are some misperceptions that people have about levels of debt and cost. You look at the University of Montana, for a resident student here at the University of Montana, our full year tuition and fees is about $8,000. And I'm not saying that's not nothing, but 36% of our students graduate with zero debt. 36%. And if you look at the average loan amount among our graduates, so if you average the data across all graduates, it's $15,700. And when you look at the average annual wage premium for a new college grad, above and beyond a high school grad, it's about a wage premium of $22,000, meaning you'll on average make $22,000 a year more than you would have without a college degree.
0:29:27.5 SB: And over your lifetime, I think most estimates say that the lifetime earnings benefit of a college degree is about $1.2 million. So if you take those numbers in context, so you incur, and this is average, there's outliers on both ends, but on average, you incur $15,000 of debt to get a degree that enables you to make $22,000 more per year and $1.2 million more over your lifetime. That's a pretty good investment. But that's at UM. When we start talking about schools charging literally 10 times as much as we charge, that value calculation could flip the other way. And I think that's one of the challenges and frustrations, frankly, is that we see schools like the University of Montana where we fight and scratch and claw to keep our education as affordable and as accessible as possible, being painted with the same brush as universities that are literally charging 10 times the amount that we are charging. And I think that's a real disservice. And I think it's a real challenge.
0:30:41.3 EV: I can't let you go without talking a little bit about another big thing that's happened across the course of this summer regarding to why students might have perceived that college really isn't the place for them. And here I'm specifically talking about students of color. So the recent SCOTUS decision which eliminated affirmative action in admissions decisions, can you talk a little bit about what Montana's doing to address both equity gaps and also that specific decision in terms of improving access and supporting historically underserved students? University of Montana's gonna be a lot of Native students.
0:31:16.0 SB: Yeah. No, absolutely. And a lot of discussion obviously, and understandably and rightfully so around the decision around affirmative action. But that decision does not directly impact the University of Montana in the ways that it obviously does small, selective schools. Our doors are already wide open. We're an institution that's committed to access. And so our mission is not to spend time and energy deciding who we're gonna let in. Our job is to make sure, and when I talk about inclusive prosperity, that means our job is to ensure that every single member of our community, regardless of where you come from, who your parents were, who you love, what you look like, how much money you have, that every single member of our community is able to achieve their unique full potential.
0:32:17.6 SB: And so our job is, again, to spend our time ensuring we make sure that everyone who can come through our doors is successful. Now, we do focus on certain groups, as I mentioned. We are a university and that we acknowledge always that this university sits on the traditional territories of indigenous people. That's very important to us. And we've put a big focus on making UM more accessible to Native American students, and you've seen an increase of more than 25% in our native enrollment just over the past five years. And significant increases in retention rates. We've also noticed that while $8,000 a year for a family making $150,000 makes the University of Montana one of the best bargains in the country, for those at the lower end of the income spectrum, that is still a tall task. And so we developed and launched something last year called the Grizzly Promise. And the Grizzly Promise, we are the Montana Grizzlies, the Grizzly Promise is a program we launched that guarantees that any Montanan coming from a family making $50,000 or less can attend UM tuition-free. And we do that through a mix of obviously federal aid, but institutional and donor support, again, to make this a university that is accessible to people at all lens of the income spectrum.
0:33:51.3 EV: Seth, I really wanna thank you. This has been a tremendous conversation. You and I can talk for a long time, I'm sure, without getting bored, but I wanna be respectful of your time so you can go back to doing all that great work that you've been talking about this time. I do wanna ask you just one more question before we go, and if you were to maybe share one piece of advice to other higher education leaders as they go about their work at UM or at a completely different kind of school. What makes you share with them that you'd like them to take to heart and incorporate it in their own work?
0:34:25.0 SB: Well, look, I am hesitant to offer advice 'cause I'm still learning things as a university president every single day, so whenever people ask me advice, I always wanna say, "Well, I want some from you, too." But what I'm really trying to do here at the University of Montana, and I think good university presidents are doing this all across the country, but I think we have these very diverse constituencies to serve. But what I'm always focused on is, how do we bring these questions back to the heart of the issue which is our student success? What do our students need to succeed, not just in the workplace but in their lives and in their careers as engaged citizens in this country?
0:35:13.6 SB: And for me, is we bring it back to that question, you get to better answers, you get to alignment between faculty, between students, between regions, between legislators. So always trying to bring people back to this idea of placing student success at the center of everything that we do. When we do that, and when we do it genuinely, when we do it transparently, and when we work to tell our story of the ways we're doing that well, I think we not only serve our students better, I think we renew the trust of the public and we, again, position this country for success over the long run.
0:35:55.3 EV: That's a great spot for us to conclude the podcast right here. Thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate all the insights that you've shared and the stories you told. I always think it's very interesting to hear your perspective on things and what you're doing, and of course, the great successes at UM that you've achieved in a relatively short period of time I hope will serve as a model for other institutions that are also trying to achieve some of these other great things. So thank you again, once again for your time and, yeah, that's I suppose where I conclude it.
0:36:26.1 SB: Alright. Thanks, Ed. It's a pleasure to be here and pleasure to be a part of a collaborative and really important discussion. So I appreciate it. Thanks.
0:36:33.1 EV: Alright.
0:36:40.6 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week where our guest will explore the future of annual giving in higher education.
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