Columns » Max Brantley

The UA’s future

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette stirred up the higher education community last week with a report on private discussions by the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees on a successor to UA System President Alan Sugg, who is scheduled to retire in the summer of 2011.

The report was that G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, was a favorite. Not surprising. Gearhart, a UA graduate in his first year as chancellor, has won very positive reviews so far.

The report also said, and my own source confirms, that the discussion about a possible rise of Gearhart to president indicated it might include a transition period in which he would continue to hold the job of chancellor at Fayetteville. Given the competition among the many campuses in the UA system, it seemed to me that it would be hard for Gearhart to be seen as a fair broker while wearing two hats.

It wouldn't be an unprecedented arrangement, however. For example, Gearhart came back to Arkansas from Penn State, where the university president presides, in residence, over the flagship campus and the rest of the multi-campus university system. I was told, too, that an interim period of dual jobholding might have been at least partially Gearhart's idea. Though he might like to be UA System president, he reportedly feels an obligation to the Fayetteville campus and doesn't want to leave prematurely, certainly not before he's confident a strong successor is in the wings. (The new UA provost, Sharon Gaber, could be a candidate, for example, but she's only been in Arkansas one year.)

Then there's the matter of the job of system president. Sugg has not made waves as president. To some, he's often been a ceremonial leader, with the individual campuses often charting their own courses (and sometimes scrapping with each other over legislative funding for special programs). Arkansas could benefit from a stronger system of centralized governance, not just for the UA but for all its colleges and universities. The higher education governing body is only advisory. But the structural impediments don't mean the right person couldn't make the UA System presidency stronger, particularly with the backing of the UA trustees. But there are many ifs in that equation, not the least the quirks of trustees.

Whatever else may happen at the next or future board meetings, Board chairman John Ed Anthony and others quickly made it clear that there was no basis for a suggestion raised by an anonymous source in the Democrat-Gazette article that the UA System office might move from Little Rock to Fayetteville if Gearhart were to be chosen. The symbolism of such an idea alarmed other campuses. The Internet, telephones and secretive politicking by trustees demonstrate, however, that it hardly matters where the System office is lodged in terms of calling shots.

If anybody can, Gearhart might be the person to carry off a dual role for a limited time. He has a winning way. Would he want to try? The unexpected leak of the discussions might force the trustees to hold a national search for president. Then the question would be whether Gearhart would apply. Boards, of course, aren't bound to consider only those who apply.

It's worth observing that the floating of Gearhart's name hasn't prompted nearly the unhappiness caused by an earlier effort led by lame duck-Trustee Jim Lindsey to engineer installation of his friend, business partner and then-fellow trustee Stanley Reed as the next president.

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