Military leaders can transform education | Brunell

Do good military commanders make good education leaders?

That is a question Montana’s Higher Education Commission will answer in the coming years. However, if the new University of Montana president follows the pattern set by former Seattle Public School Superintendent John Stanford and Clark College President Bob Knight, the answer will be a resounding yes.

Seth Bodnar, 38, is the youngest UM president since World War II. He started in January. He doesn’t have the coveted title “Ph.D.” His key academic credentials include Rhodes and Truman scholar, and his practical experience comes from his distinguished service in the U.S. Army and at General Electric.

Bodnar led platoons in Iraq when General David Patraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division, qualified for the elite Special Forces (Green Beret), learned Mandarin Chinese and trained Philippine troops to fight insurgents.

He left the military, joined GE’s slumping locomotive manufacturing division, and led the transformation to install sophisticated, on-board computer systems, which collectively saved 900,000 gallons of diesel per week. Sales ticked up.

At Montana, Bodnar deals with a 25 percent enrollment decline since 2010. The university is still healing from a rash of sexual assault allegations which were detailed in Jon Krakauer’s 2015 book “Missoula.”

So, why would a 20-member faculty committee search for nine months and break tradition by settling on an outsider?

The same question was asked of the Seattle Public School board members when they recruited John Stanford, a retired army major general, in 1995; and when Clark College trustees hired Bob Knight, a retired army officer and West Point grad, as president in 2007.

They were looking for transformative leaders who have a record of bringing people to together to resolve complex and thorny problems. The trio are goal-oriented, tireless workers and inspirational. They project warmth, nimbleness and humility.

Stanford engaged students, teachers and the community to deal with Seattle’s high dropout rate and declining SAT test scores. He raised $2 million in private donations to support the 10 initiatives that he and the board adopted. Stanford successfully engaged disgruntled educators and parents. Unfortunately, Stanford died of leukemia in 1998.

Over the last decade, Knight reinvigorated Clark College, renewed partnerships with major four-year universities and partnered with employers to train students for future jobs. He re-engaged the community and built support among students, faculty and staff. His vision for the college is solid and progressing well. In 2016, Knight was awarded Vancouver’s coveted “First Citizen Award.”

Bodnar has many of Stanford’s and Knight’s attributes. They are engrained in military leaders and hardened through their training and experience. America’s armed forces, like our public schools, have people from all walks of life, income levels and political, ethnic and spiritual backgrounds. Leaders must mold individuals into cohesive units where each member depends on the other.

Effective leaders must clearly communicate face-to-face with people and groups. They must cautiously text and tweet to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Bodnar, Stanford and Knight are visionaries who engage people. They don’t wait for people to come to them. They go out and tackle difficult problems by listening, especially to those with differing opinions. They are good at sizing up situations, taking calculated risks and working to find plausible solutions.

All three are charismatic and make people feel part of a solution. They are positive, effectively handle criticism and have the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Through it all, they carefully measure what they say, check their pride, and build bridges rather than blowing them up.

Hopefully, Bodnar will succeed, Knight will continue on course and Stanford’s legacy will live on.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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