Media Q&A

Q&A: Chancellor-Elect Gearhart shares his thoughts on academic leadership and the job he assumes July 1

Fayetteville, AR – One month after approval of his appointment to be chancellor of the University of Arkansas, G. David Gearhart participated in a question and answer session with Daily Headlines. In this interview, he offered his thoughts on his selection by the Board of Trustees to be the next head of the state’s flagship campus, as well as his vision for the future.

Gearhart, 55, was approved by the board on Jan. 25, 2008, to become the fifth chancellor of the University of Arkansas. He will succeed Chancellor John A. White on July 1, 2008.

Q: Why did you want this job, knowing the challenges and scrutiny that come with it?

As I told the Board of Trustees, in some ways I feel my entire adult life has prepared me for this opportunity, and it’s a challenge I relish. Not only am I an alumnus of the University of Arkansas who has been fortunate enough to spend much of his career here, but I was born and raised in the shadow of Old Main. So I consider this university my home, and I feel a sense of duty to do my part in helping it achieve its great potential. There certainly are great challenges that come with this position, but I’ve never ducked from a challenge. I was told that raising a billion dollars was impossible at the University of Arkansas, but we made that happen. Nothing is impossible and nothing should stand in our way of becoming a model for public higher education around the world. I want to be a central part of that progress.

Q: While your background indicates extensive experience in higher education administration and fundraising, do you believe you have the academic credentials necessary to thrive as the university’s chief executive, and do you think the faculty will buy into your administration?

While I am not an instructor or researcher by trade, I believe my combination of academic credentials and administrative experience gives me the appropriate mix of skills essential for this job. Running a major, comprehensive public research university in the 21st century requires not only intellectual abilities to understand educational needs and priorities, it also requires political savvy, fiscal aptitude, interpersonal and PR skills, and strong leadership traits. My career has given me the opportunity to hone these abilities. At the same time, like any good leader, I plan to regularly solicit the advice of individuals and groups who have greater expertise than I do in specific areas of administering the university.

Q: Along those lines, how would you characterize your leadership style?

I believe that my management style is straightforward, clear, compelling with frequent communication as a necessary ingredient for leadership. The faculty and staff need to know and buy into the goals and objectives and strategic direction of our institution, but they also must be trusted and empowered to devise the best means of getting us there. I expect that how we proceed in any endeavor will be based in planning that involves all aspects of the university community, and I will be very much engaged in this process. Planning has been a hallmark of my entire career, and I hope to bring visible leadership to planning efforts at the university. Without question, my administration will be open, inclusive and transparent, all grounded in careful planning.

Q: What is your vision for the University of Arkansas and the top priority for your administration?

My basic philosophy is to give the people of Arkansas a superb university both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. We have the opportunity to construct a learning community of scholars, teachers and researchers functioning in a harmonious way that crosses disciplinary boundaries and works toward a collegial environment that rewards research, teaching and service. We also need to make the university more about individuals, from faculty to staff to students. I want to dramatically improve our student centeredness, and have everyone understand that it’s more than a catch phrase. If we have made the decision to accept a student into the university family, we should do everything in our power to make that student successful and launch that student on a meaningful pathway in life, removing the arbitrary roadblocks to a student’s success.

Q: Chancellor White in his retirement announcement said he hoped the next chancellor would make the university even better than he has left it. How do you keep the momentum going?

In most ways, success begets success. Keeping the momentum going, keeping our alumni and friends excited about the university’s progress, keeping our students dedicated to pursuing academic excellence — that’s a much easier burden than getting momentum started, or creating enthusiasm from scratch. So, despite the challenge of taking the university to uncharted levels, I’m coming into a great situation thanks to John White’s influence. In our benchmarks for the university, we have improved in every facet over the last 10 years. We enroll better-prepared students and have better graduation rates. People want to be involved in a successful program that is moving upward. Students want to come here, faculty want to come here, staff members want to give that extra measure, all because we have a dynamic campus atmosphere and a commitment to success. They will have the biggest impact on progress.

Q: You mentioned challenges that come with this job. What do you see as the major challenges for the university and higher education in the coming years?

I believe the most serious challenge we face is the ability of our students to afford a University of Arkansas education. Far too many low-income and minority students are denied a college education at their flagship institution because of financial barriers. Far too many students who make the leap to attend school here are leaving with overwhelming debt — about $20,000 on average, and much higher than that for some students. The privatization of public higher education is a disturbing national trend over the past three decades, and we need to find ways to overcome this growing obstacle if we can’t reverse it. I believe we have run a lean university, but we always can do a better job of removing waste and duplication without compromising educational quality and outreach to the state.

Q: The university had established a rather ambitious set of goals for 2010 under Chancellor White’s administration. What happens to those goals now?

Raising standards, increasing public and private funding, improving the quality of programs and enhancing diversity are all benchmarks that are in line with what you would expect from any nationally competitive research institution. It would be prudent for us to stay the course. We will continue to look critically at the goals and projections we made in 1997 and make appropriate adjustments, and in many cases, raise the bar even higher.

Q: Do you believe that minority enrollment and campus diversity remain important goals, and do you have ideas for ways the university can better strive to achieve them?

We have worked very hard to make a compelling case for diversity at the university, but while making progress, our efforts have fallen short of expectations. We have a duty and responsibility to effect change in this area and place resources where our mouth is.  We're hoping to expand the African American studies program considerably in the coming years by raising a million dollars.  This department has broad appeal and attracts a high percentage of underrepresented students, so we would like to help it create new study opportunities and scholarships.  I would also like to work more closely with the Black Alumni Society to strategize ways to attract more minority students and increase need-based scholarships.  Additionally, we need to do a better job of supporting underrepresented students when they get here.  We can't wait for struggling students to reach out for us; we need to be reaching out to them on a more consistent basis.  The solution to increasing diversity is almost certainly more complicated, and more comprehensive, than we initially realized when we set out to do it.  Nevertheless, we are absolutely committed to doing it. 

Q: What will you do about the gap in salaries between female and male faculty? Will increasing faculty salaries be a priority?

Faculty and staff salaries must be at the top of our list if we are to remain competitive in the years ahead. It may be fair to conclude that we have built the university on the backs of our faculty and staff. Salaries run anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent below the market, and I’m talking about the market of similar institutions and organizations that are in our backyard and impacted by common economic forces. It is true that we certainly need to do more with our physical plant and keep our facilities in excellent condition, but we also need to be cognizant of the disparity in salaries and remind ourselves that you build a great university one faculty member, one staff member and one student at a time.

Q: The university succeeded in its fundraising efforts, especially the campaign that raised $1 billion. How will you match that, much less top it?

Even though the university has not been in campaign mode for the last two years, gifts from supporters of the university continue to swell. Raising $100 million or more — once an unfathomable sum — is now an annual occurrence. Donors see our commitment to making the university nationally recognized, and they want to be a part of that. Our next big effort in the years ahead will be to make sure that need-based scholarships are available to students who want to attend the university but who face financial difficulty. Even though the University of Arkansas is one of the most affordable public universities in America, we want to make sure we continue to remain affordable for all Arkansans.

Q: When will the next fundraising campaign begin?

Campaigns typically take years of planning before they are publicly launched. Our last campaign, the Campaign for the Twenty-First Century, concluded in June 2005 with $1.046 billion in gifts and pledges, and we are continuing to realize the success of that campaign as pledges are fulfilled and endowments are reached. I think without question there is another campaign on the horizon, but we will look to our philanthropic Board of Advisors, among others, for advice in determining the level of donor fatigue that may exist among our constituents. Obviously, private gift support remains a critical and key complement to public support that lags behind our expanding needs.

Q: An effective leader of any public institution must be able to work with legislators to the university’s best advantage. What will your legislative agenda be and how will you work with legislators?

My sense is that we must go beyond the requisite appearance before the state legislature at appropriations time and emphasize the development of relationships with key members of the General Assembly. This must be accomplished systematically and involve all members of the senior administration. In other words, legislative relations is not an activity to be relegated to the governmental affairs office anymore than fundraising is relegated to the director of development. We must all be consistent, visible and engaged in the process, and all year long. We also need to do a better job in demonstrating how the university is one of the state’s most significant economic engines, and how every dollar invested in the university shows a return on investment for the state. This return on investment helps all aspects of the state, including K-12 education. If we want to maintain the educational quality that Arkansans have come to expect from their flagship university, state funding will be essential to help us keep tuition costs low and ensure an educated populous — another key element in the economic success of the state.

Q: What will your policy regarding the media be and what is your take on the state Freedom of Information Act with regard to university documents and business activities?

Coming from a family with deep roots in the newspaper industry, I understand the importance of the media as an essential component of a free and open society. We are a public university, and we will,of course, abide by all state laws regarding release of public documents and notice of public meetings. We want the residents of Arkansas to understand how their tax dollars are spent in the education and service of the state. Personally, I plan to be accessible to the media, as I have been throughout my career, and want them to be willing partners in bringing the story of the University of Arkansas to the world.

Q: What role should intercollegiate athletics play at the university? Will you manage athletics any differently than it has been in the past?

The passion that Arkansans have for the Razorbacks is unsurpassed anywhere in the country, and we need to collectively harness that enthusiasm in positive ways. The residents of Arkansas feel a vital connection to the university — whether or not they are alumni — and we have an obligation to them to maintain programs that are above reproach. I believe we are meeting that obligation, and having a unified athletic department will further help us ensure that our programs remain a unifying source of pride. I look forward to working with our director of athletics in this new structure for the betterment of Razorback student-athletes and our fans.