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A money man at the top in Fayetteville 

David Gearhart is not your father’s chancellor

UA STUDENTS: Gearhart would like to increase enrollment by at least  3,000.
  • UA STUDENTS: Gearhart would like to increase enrollment by at least 3,000.

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.

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