President Series: University leader shares how higher ed can work for veterans

University of Montana president and Green Beret Seth Bodnar stresses the importance of giving military members welcoming spaces and opportunities.
By: | November 10, 2021
The color guard carries the American and Montanan flags during Welcomefeast 2019 on the oval of the University of Montana. (Photos courtesy of the University of Montana)

Seth Bodnar

(This is the first in a new series from University Business on college presidents, who will address their missions and some of the top issues affecting higher education.)

“The military provided opportunities and helped me to grow and mature as a person and as a leader in ways that I never could have anticipated. I feel blessed to have had those opportunities.”

– Seth Bodnar

In Big Sky country, situated below the prominent Mount Sentinel is the University of Montana, home of the Grizzlies and home to a campus that proudly serves veterans and is led by one of them.

Seth Bodnar, the president of this flagship institution, is a Green Beret and a former cadet at West Point, where he later became a faculty member. He understands the deep value of postsecondary education for veterans and the importance of giving members and their families a worthy place on college campuses.

It is why his latest mission, among many in this challenging time for higher education, is to make his university the most military-friendly flagship institution in the nation.

“Veterans and military families are one of the nation’s greatest treasures and assets,” Bodnar says. “If you look at the post-9/11 veteran population, you have an incredible amount of talent, experience, adaptability, people who know how to work in teams, who know how to work in ambiguity and solve unscripted problems.”

And so, he says we not only should honor those who served but give them opportunities. Higher education has a role to play, helping them reskill and upskill while giving them a sense of community.

“A university has to be really clear about the value proposition of its programs, showing that they have a good, supportive community where that veteran with a military spouse can really thrive,” Bodnar says. “How can it adapt to be accessible and seamless for a person that’s coming from the military?”

Bodnar, who graduated first in his class at West Point and continued his studies at Oxford University, has been at the University of Montana since 2018 after a seven-year stint as a senior executive at General Electric. At 42 years old, he is one of the youngest in the nation at the helm. University Business sat down to learn more about him and how higher education can better serve veterans.

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar with students

You have a decorated military and civilian career, but what was it that brought you to the top of higher education in Montana?

My parents were both elementary school educators in rural Western Pennsylvania, so education is in my blood. The opportunity to go to West Point and learn about leadership was transformational. It opened so many doors for me from an educational standpoint. As I was finishing my time in the military, I had the opportunity to be on faculty at West Point. I taught economics for a couple of years and loved it. I almost stayed as a permanent professor but ultimately decided that while I loved the interaction with students, I wasn’t as much driven by the research aspect of the life of a faculty member. But I liked being around young people, liked being in the realm of higher education. [After GE], I made my way back toward public service and public higher ed and was so blessed to be able to receive the role here at the University of Montana. Ultimately, it’s about helping individuals from all different backgrounds reach their full potential.

What are veterans looking for from a college or university?

Three things. They’re looking for pathways to that new career. Where can I get the skills, the education, the credentials necessary? The second is a place that “gets them,” that understands the military experience, that can speak the military language and understands how to help translate some of their experiences into pathways and give them credit for the things they’ve done in the military. The third is a place where they feel welcomed and supported and where they have a community. When you work in the military, it feels like a family. That sense of community is really important.

What are some of the challenges facing veterans who are interested in pursuing post-secondary education?

There are two challenges. The more difficult one to solve is, what is my identity post-military? What are the things that I want to do in the world? How can I bring my skills to bear? From my own experience as a Special Forces officer, the skills of a military occupational specialist (MOS-18) don’t really translate to anything in the civilian world in the literal sense. But I had to work with other militaries on an ungoverned island in the southern Philippines where a portion of the 9/11 attacks was planned, trying to bring stability and peace to this island that was facing strife and counterinsurgency. For a lot of veterans, it’s hard to chart that pathway and to define that.

The second problem is, I might know what I want to do and it sounds like there are good benefits, but it is confusing. How does that GI Bill work? What is the Yellow Ribbon Program? How do I get financial aid? Is there any credit for things I’ve already learned in the military? We unintentionally throw up these barriers to veterans trying to make that transition. That is a huge disservice not just to the veterans and military families, but to our society. Those are the things we’re trying to work on here at the university.

What are some of the ways the University of Montana is helping veterans?

We have a Military and Veterans Service Office that supports military veterans and family members at our campus (UM received recognition as a Purple Heart University for those efforts). But I’m trying to go beyond members that are already here and do more active outreach, to show we can adapt to meet your needs and meet you where you are. That may mean we can do things remotely, even while you’re still in service. We can work closely with you to ensure that we’re giving prior learning assessments for things you’ve done in the military.

What can higher education as a whole do to reach more veterans?

Higher ed needs to be much more nimble with our offerings. We have to unbundle them, offer individuals micro-credentials, short-term training courses. We’ve partnered with a company on a 12-week program where our faculty teach part of it and their employees and experts teach part of it. We take individuals, many of whom already have a four-year degree but are looking to reskill, and they get paid a small stipend while in this course. We just finished our sixth cohort of people, and we had 100% placement into jobs paying $60,000 a year. We’ve had some veterans go through that. Those are the types of things we need to do. We need to show more clearly how some of these programs can lead to exciting second careers for our service members.

What does Veterans Day mean to you?

Veterans Day has a lot of emotion for me. As a veteran myself, it is an important day to honor and thank those who have served our country. The way that we honor that service, most importantly, is by taking some time to recommit ourselves to that sense of service and community that really sits at the heart of military service—that service on the part of first responders, nurses, doctors, teachers, that sense of selfless service through the pandemic. That ethic of civic responsibility that really is embodied by veterans, but really sits at the heart of I think of what makes this country great. Veterans Day is the time, yes, to honor those who’ve served, but really to recommit to that idea of serving one’s community and committing to something bigger than just yourself.