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UA cozy with D-G columnist 

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An interesting element of the ongoing story of budget problems in the University of Arkansas Advancement Division has been a divide in outlook in the pages of the state's dominant news medium, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The reporting staff has made a titanic effort to cover the budget problem, the firing of UA spokesman John Diamond and Diamond's allegations that Chancellor G. David Gearhart resisted transparency and shredded documents related to the issue.

The editorial page of the newspaper, and its leader, Paul Greenberg, has often been critical. Greenberg has criticized Gearhart on other issues, including curriculum, as well.

Then there's Mike Masterson. A former full-time employee in Northwest Arkansas, he's often written warmly about the university and Gearhart. On Nov. 10, he gave much of his column to the "other side" of the paper shredding in prepared comments of UA spokesman Mark Rushing. This followed a recent extensive news account about new discoveries in the saga.

Did Gearhart destroy relevant documents? Wrote Masterson: "I don't know Diamond. But the David Gearhart I do know fairly well lives his life far distant from being that dumb or deceptive."

Gearhart has long cultivated Masterson. No crime in that. But Gearhart's critics suggested the Times should look at university treatment of Masterson and their correspondence. An FOI request confirms that Masterson in each of the last five years has been on the select list of people Gearhart invites to sit in his skybox at Razorback football games and attend pre-game parties at the University House and other locales. That record shows the columnist attended at least three games and two receptions. (Spokesman Mark Rushing says Gearhart invites "thousands." Thousands? He explained he asks about 1,000 a year to the 100-seat skybox, overbooking to account for no-shows.)

The Times also asked for Gearhart-Masterson communications. This is where things got interesting. Understand, Masterson is an innocent bystander. (He declined to answer emails from the Times on the subject, but devoted a column in the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday to respond to "anonymous critics" that said that if anyone was seeking to curry favor, it was he, not Gearhart.)

Masterson might not find Gearhart deceptive, but I'd disagree. It was another instance of at least artful dodging by the University of Arkansas and the Gearhart administration. They told me there "are no e-mails." In the course of communications with UA, I would, however, independently receive some of the material I sought from a confidential source. It illustrates the mutual admiration of Gearhart and Masterson and some insights into the world of public relations and Arkansas media. The play-by-play:

I wrote Mark Rushing and, in addition to requesting information about football and party attendance, said, "I'd also like a copy of e-mails sent by Masterson to Chancellor Gearhart since 2011."

To that question, Rushing responded, "Chancellor Gearhart did not locate any emails from or to Mr. Masterson since 2011."

I followed up, "Does 'not locate' mean there were none? Does he recall any? Has he purged his e-mail?"

That prompted this response from Rushing: "As for the email question, I checked with Chancellor Gearhart again and there are no emails."

I then sent him one more question last night: "Would it change David Gearhart's recollection that he'd never exchanged e-mail with Mike Masterson if I told you I had copies of numerous such e-mails?"

In retrospect, I realized that "there are none," might have been a term of the deceptive arts, not a denial of e-mail exchanges. So I clarified, "Has Gearhart begun purging e-mails so as to be able to say, 'there are no emails' when questions like mine arise?"

I received this response: "As you know, we are required by law to provide you with any emails that you request under FOIA. We take that obligation very seriously. As I previously told you, Chancellor Gearhart does not have any emails from or to Mike Masterson.

"With that said, Mr. Masterson has been a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for practically the entire time of Dr. Gearhart's tenure at the University. I feel confident that they have exchanged emails at some point during those 16 years."

Later, Rushing sent further comment on deleted emails: "Let's think about this from a practical standpoint. University presidents and chancellors, like Dr. Gearhart, can receive hundreds of emails a day. As you might imagine, leaders in higher education have very large constituencies. It would be totally impractical to manage that volume of email and attempt to retain every email. I'm guessing other busy professionals would agree."

As I said, I have numerous copies of emails between Gearhart and Masterson. Since neither Gearhart nor Masterson will discuss them, I can't guarantee authenticity beyond saying they are attested to by sources who've been accurate before. Some standard email headings and routine salutations and closings have been omitted. See more of the correspondence at arktimes.com/mastersonua.

March 12, 2012

Gearhart is happy about a kind word in a Democrat-Gazette editorial.

From: G. David Gearhart

To: Mike Masterson

Mike:

I think I saw your hand in today's editorial.

Many, many thanks.

You are the best!

Dave

From: Mike Masterson

To: G. David Gearhart

Subject: Re: today's editorial

Always glad to help, although I was disappointed to see any reference to the WAC folks help was cut out in LR. I specifically sent that note down there, but, oh well. Glad you appreciated it. It is a fine idea. Cheers.

All my best, to Jane too, that little rascal.

Dec. 4, 2012

Gearhart wrote Masterson to say "nice column" about his writing about the "dizzying expansion" at the UA and the need for the legislature to provide competitive salaries.

From: Mike Masterson

To: G. David Gearhart

Keep up your fine work Chancellor. You and the university have come a long (and admirable) way since our lunch at Powerhouse a few weeks after you'd unpacked into your new responsibilities. Too bad about the Choate mess. Things like this are inevitable though when an organization expands so rapidly in size and numbers. Bound to be those blasted speed bumps every so often.

Best and my best to Jane, Merry Christmas.

Dec. 14, 2012

This group of e-mails follows submission of an op-ed by Gearhart to the Democrat-Gazette in response to criticism.

From: Mike Masterson

To: G. David Gearhart

Subject: Good morning

Good morning Chancellor - Just checking with you to see if you received any reaction or feedback to your op-ed submission? If so, did they say when they will publish it? And, did WEH [Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter E. Hussman] ever respond to your message to him? Believe me, I can understand the level and nature of your frustrations here.

From: G. David Gearhart

To: Mike Masterson

Thanks my friend:

I'm told they will run the op-ed, maybe this weekend, but not certain.

Got a short e-mail from Walter saying he would be happy to talk with me. I don't plan on calling him.

From: Mike Masterson

To: G. David Gearhart

Thanks for the update. I'm just one person with one opinion, but knowing Walter the way I have (I was the first editor he hired back in 1973 at Hot Springs) I think it might be wise and behoove you to sit down with him and express your feelings backed up with the facts you have. I know he detests conflict but he's also reasonable and listens to others' concerns very well. I just believe you have a side to tell in this and it makes perfect sense from every perspective in my view.

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