FAYETTEVILLE — Although his father was in the newspaper business, young David Gearhart never had much interest in a newspaper career himself, and such as he showed, the elder Gearhart snuffed out quickly. “He told me ‘You don't make a lot of money, and you have to be passionate about it.' ”
Gearhart went into the higher-education game instead, and today, instead of being a business executive with the Northwest Arkansas Times, as his father was, he is chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which means he has more money, more status and better Razorback tickets. Few sons have received sounder fatherly advice.
Gearhart, 56, took office as chancellor on July 1. Many eyes are upon him; that's one of the drawbacks of his career choice. UAF is the jewel of higher education in Arkansas, the oldest, largest and most influential of the institutions, the principal research university, essentially the only land-grant university.
Furthermore, Gearhart's predecessor, John White, was a controversial figure under whom the university made large strides, though, his critics said, not always in the right direction. The media, or elements of it, were among those who distrusted White, and not unreasonably. He made little effort to conceal his disregard for journalists, boasting that he never gave them a straight answer.
On the other hand, White was very well liked by monied interests, who donated vast sums to the University — with what strings attached is still not entirely clear — and whose names, particularly Walton, now stick up all over the campus. Gearhart too was crucial in winning the hearts and minds, and money, of the Wal-Mart heirs and other corporate types. Raising money is mostly what college presidents and chancellors do now, but people are curious to see if Gearhart has other skills that might be useful in educating the young people of Arkansas.
Oddly enough, he says that he never wanted to be a teacher, and he's managed to avoid teaching almost entirely while climbing the career ladder of higher education. Most college presidents, though they may have jumped into administration at the first chance, have a story about how teaching was really their first love and how they long to return to the classroom someday. Gearhart says he never intended to be a professor, and, through choice, “My background has always been in the external affairs of the university.” But he once taught a class for doctoral candidates in education at Penn State — he has a doctorate in education himself — while working primarily as an administrator. He says he enjoyed the experience, and is “talking about” doing something similar at Fayetteville.
He acknowledges that “It's a little bit unusual to have someone come up outside the faculty ranks,” and that some of the UA faculty might regard him skeptically because of his background. But he says he's met with many of them since his appointment as chancellor and “I've felt a real warmth.” He'd already worked with many during his fund-raising campaigns. “I've always felt close to the faculty. What I do benefits them.
“I think I'll bend over backward to get faculty input, knowing they're saying ‘He's not one of us.' I've met with the Faculty Senate, and I told them I hope you'll let me know when I'm not being collaborative.”
The biography of G. David Gearhart posted on the UA web site says, “A native of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Chancellor Gearhart was born and raised in the shadow of Old Main.” He's left and returned to Fayetteville often since then.
After graduation from Fayetteville High School, where he met his future wife, Gearhart attended Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. “I wanted to get away, and I wanted a smaller school.” He earned a bachelor's degree in political science and speech at Westminster in 1974, came back to Fayetteville to attend law school, and in 1976, still a law student, went back to Westminster as assistant to the president, a quick advancement occasioned not by a show of startling potential in law school but by acquaintance with the person who'd just been named interim president. He finished his law studies in Missouri, though his law degree is from UA. So is the doctorate in education he got later. While a law student, he took courses from both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. After Bill was elected attorney general, Gearhart considered going to work for him. He stayed with higher ed instead.
Appointed director of development at Westminster, he led fund-raising efforts for the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library. (Westminster is where Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. It's virtually impossible to mention Westminster without saying that.) According to his biography, “Thus was launched a nationally respected career in university advancement.”
In 1978, he became vice president for development at Hendrix College in Conway, and after four years there was hired as director of development at UA. He led a “Campaign for Books” that added more than 100,000 volumes to the University Library.
In 1985, he went to Penn State as vice president for development and university relations. He spent 14 years at Penn State — he says that his son and daughter “grew up as Yankees” — and raised much money for the school. He also did a stint with a philanthropic management firm, Grenzebach, Glier and Associates, based in Chicago. His clients included a number of public and private universities.
In 1998, he came back to Fayetteville again, as UA's vice chancellor for university relations, and he led what the official biography calls, without apparent exaggeration, “the stunningly successful Campaign for the Twenty-First Century, a billion-dollar capital campaign that concluded in June 2005 with the University of Arkansas taking its place as one of only 13 public universities at that time to have exceeded a billion dollars raised.
“The centerpiece of this campaign was a $300 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, the largest gift ever made to a public university. The direct results of Gearhart's leadership in this effort included the creation of 132 new endowed faculty positions, 1,738 new student scholarship and fellowship funds, dozens of new and renovated facilities and classrooms, and growth of the overall endowment from $119 million in 1998 to nearly $900 million by the time he assumed the chancellorship. In every imaginable way, the university was transformed by this campaign.”
The man can raise money. But what will he do for us lately? What does he want to?
The faculty may be forgiving of Gearhart's lack of teaching experience because he's replacing White. White was unpopular in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, still the university's largest college, which believed itself shorted on funds while other colleges — Education, Business, Engineering — prospered.
Though entirely uncritical of White, Gearhart sounds sympathetic to the A&S complaints.
“We probably need to put more money in Arts and Sciences,” he says. “I think there's some truth to the statement that we haven't added to the faculty in Arts and Sciences as much as was needed. Every college and school at the University needs more money. But Arts and Sciences has so many degree programs, it may have been hit harder than others.” But he also says that A&S benefited significantly from the fund-raising campaign, which endowed chairs and created scholarships and fellowships.
With an enrollment around 19,000, UA needs to grow, Gearhart says. “I believe very strongly that we need an enrollment of 22,000 at a minimum. It wouldn't bother me to go to 23,000 or 24,000. We have the physical plant and the curriculum to accommodate that size.”
There are only four sources of money for the university, Gearhart says: State tax dollars, appropriated by the legislature; tuition (“and we have to be careful not to price ourselves out of the market”); research grants (a relatively small amount), and private gifts. Another 2,000 students would bring in another $11 or $12 million in state aid for the university.
“We're one of the smallest universities in the Southeastern Conference. We're in the lower bracket of flagship, land-grant universities around the country. Most of them are 25,000 and up.”
Arkansas has a small population generally; the number of 18-year-olds is static. Though the UA welcomes out-of-state students, any significant increase in enrollment will require the University to attract more students away from other Arkansas colleges and universities. That won't endear Gearhart to them, of course, but he's prepared to take the risk.
“Most of the graduate programs are here, so there'll always be a lot of collaboration with the other institutions,” he says. “But we want to signal that we're the premiere institution, the research institution, and as such an economic provider to the state. We need to be telling people what we do best, and why it's important that we be funded.” He plans to be “very visible” when the legislature is meeting in Little Rock, even though the UA has a “very good” lobbyist in Vice Chancellor Richard Hudson.
As for attracting the students, “We'll have to make our case why a University of Arkansas education is the best for the money. We think our programs stand apart, that we provide a college experience, both academic and nonacademic, that students will want to be a part of.”
Fayetteville has historically been Arkansas's only real “college town,” in the sense of a mostly residential campus where students stay around even on weekends, in contrast to those campuses where all the students go home on Friday afternoon. A few years ago, the chancellor of another Arkansas campus posited that Fayetteville's old reputation no longer fit. With interstate highways and non-traditional students, all colleges are commuter colleges now, he said. Gearhart rejects that characterization.
“There's still a substantial number of our students that live on-campus and in nearby private apartments and fraternity and sorority houses. The frats declined for awhile, but that seems to be turning around. The sororities never declined. There's a vibrancy here on the weekends. It's very much a non-commuter school.”
The Razorbacks are a major part of the UA experience. Some presidents and chancellors have actively involved themselves in the Athletic Department; some have more or less let it run itself, or let Frank Broyles run it. Some have tried to be involved and been rebuffed. Broyles, the powerful, long-lived, much-loved and much-hated athletic director finally retired under pressure last year, and a new AD, Jeff Long, was hired by White. Long, in turn, hired a new football coach, Bobby Petrino. It would appear the opportunity for administrative meddling is greater than it's been for awhile. Gearhart says he doesn't plan to seize it.
“I have the utmost faith in the new athletic director,” Gearhart says. “He's doing an excellent job. I've told him that he needs to make the day-to-day decisions. I'll always be interested, but I have so many other things on my plate.”
“I love sports. I played sports in high school. Sports is very important to an institution like ours. It's a social glue for students, alumni and supporters. But it has to be done the right way, and I'm confident he [Long] will.
“I think generally speaking the Razorbacks are a uniting force for the state.”
Chancellors and presidents are often judged by their new buildings. Among the capital projects that are needed, “The front-runner is a nanotechnology building,” Gearhart says. “We have $20 million for that. We'll be starting construction soon. Major renovation is needed on some of our older buildings, like Architecture. On the medium burner is a building for the Honors College. It's now scattered across campus.”
He'd like both a larger enrollment and a more diverse enrollment, but without lowering the academic standards for admission. He believes that's possible, or professes to, but admits it's difficult.
“It's a balancing act. We don't have open admission. We have standards, and we don't lower the standards for minorities or anyone else. We don't want to accept a student who can't do the academic work. But we also have an obligation to help that person succeed. Sometimes we advise they start someplace else. There are a lot of students who are not quite ready to take on a major land-grant university. The important thing is they get a degree.”
“We have review committees on standards. They look at the whole student, not just test scores. They look at the ability of the student to make it. I think we do about as good a job as a large institution can do.”
A reporter has to ask if Gearhart will be more forthcoming with the media than White was.
“I want my administration to be open, to be transparent. I want to be approachable. Having grown up in a newspaper family, I realize that members of the media have their job to do.
“I found Chancellor White to be approachable, and I had a good working relationship with him. These kinds of jobs are really a way of life, and your life is an open book. You're multi-tasking all the time. You have multiple levels of constituents. John did an extraordinary job. I think that in the future, he will be proven to have been someone who really moved this university.”
After a few weeks in office, he's found no great surprises; the challenges are what he expected. And those challenges are, he recently told a colleague, “money, money and money.” Sounds like the university has the right man on the job.