FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart is sitting behind an oak desk in his corner office nursing a Diet Pepsi.
He used to drink Diet Coke until the UA struck a deal this summer for PepsiCo to become the university’s exclusive non-alcoholic cold beverage sponsor and supplier.
“I can’t really tell the difference,” he says, politics in check.
He carries the can with him around his office, from desk to conference table and back, but he barely has time for a sip in between calls, meetings with staffers, answering vital e-mails — and this time of year — juggling appearances at the many back-to-school activities for new and returning students.
On this day, the second of the 2012-13 school year, he was up at 5:30 a.m., in his office by 8 a.m. and his day won’t end until after a 6 p.m. leadership class he’ll co-lecture with former chancellor John A. White.
By this time, his fifth year as chancellor, he’s learned how to juggle the day and nighttime engagements, and the weekend ones too. But it didn’t come easy.
“When i first came into this job, I kind of fought it — the loss of independence and anonymity,” he said. “You finally just have to sort of surrender and say this is my life now.”
Gearhart, 60, rises to his radio alarm, which is synced to the precise time an National Public Broadcasting announcer says: “This is NPR News.” One of this morning’s lead stories was the death of comedian Phyllis Diller.
He exercises 35-40 minutes on an elliptical or up to an hour on a treadmill.
He shaves and showers and then picks out his suit and tie from a monstrous walk-in closet in the master bedroom of Fowler House, the official chancellor’s residence. Gearhart says: “I just don’t feel like I’m dressed for the day if I don’t have a tie on.”
He has had a light breakfast of fruit (today it was watermelon). “I feel better if i don’t bulk up on breakfast,” he says.
Gearhart is usually out the door by 7:30 a.m., 8 at the latest.
The chancellor tries not to start any meetings until mid-morning so he can take time to answer email and mail, dictate letters and the like. He gets between 150 and 175 emails a day.
He has a separate email account from which he sends mass emails, such as one he sent Monday (Aug. 20) with a video of him welcoming students back to school. UA Associate Vice Chancellor for Administration Judy Schwab, who has been with Gearhart for 14 years, manages a lot of his email, sending him the ones she thinks he needs to address personally. They usually discuss what he is going to say in his reply.
Whatever emails he gets after he leaves the office he answers from an iPad before he turns in for the night.
“I’m a big believer of following up and answering people,” Gearhart said. This is what made him a masterful fundraiser for the university before he became chancellor. Even on a two-week trip to Gulf Shores with his wife, Jane, and her family this summer, Gearhart took calls and answered emails.
“It just drives me nuts if we don’t answer people in a timely way.”
Gearhart’s first meeting of the day is with Danny Pugh, vice provost for student affairs and dean of students. He updates Gearhart on all the services and activities planned for students to engage them and help them adjust to college life, especially the freshmen.
A couple of things Pugh is particularly proud to report: Nearly a dozen Help-A-Hog stations manned by 100 volunteers around campus to help new students find their way around; the three-hour “Razorbash” Thursday (Aug. 23) that’s expected to draw some 10,000 students to mall between the Arkansas Union and Mullins Library; and Thursday night’s pep rally, the first to be held in Razorback Stadium.
But that’s not all.
Pugh’s also got housing numbers at his fingertips. The UA has 5,314 housing contracts signed, every residence hall on campus is now fully air conditioned, and no-shows are down. About 70 students will bunk in converted lounge space in a dormitory, but the renovation of Hotz Hall and the completion of Founders Hall will alleviate these problems by the start of next year, Pugh said happily. Some off campus residence halls — such as Sterling Frisco, which is coming out of the ground at the corner of Maple Street and West Avenue, and The Grove south of town — create additional housing that the university doesn’t have to pay for, he said.
Gearhart said there was a 20% glut of student housing on the market three to four years ago and expresses his concerns about overbuilding. Pugh said he has heard that The Grove is opening at about 60% capacity.
Briefly, the two men discuss a front-page article in today’s edition of The Arkansas Traveler that indicates dorms “are prone to the spreading of illnesses and bugs and fungi that cause illness due to the close living quarters of students.” The headline reads: “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite.”
“We don’t don’t have a bed bug problem,” Gearhart remarked. “I’m sure some of our students have athlete’s foot,” he added jokingly.
They also discuss prospects for the student newspaper to go fully online (They’re now online but also publish four times a week). Pugh says the journalism faculty are strongly opposed to the idea.
Gearhart has a special interest in the Greek system — especially participation from the men — in part because he helped raise the level of participation. In 2002, just 160 men went through rush; this year, there’s likely to be 1,000 or more.
“It was really in peril,” the chancellor said.
The campus’ eight sororities completed rush last weekend with a record number 1,226 bids for membership issued. Two new sororities to campus — Phi Mu and Alpha Chi Omega — participated in rush, but wont be able to give out bids until their groups are formally colonized on Sept. 9, Pugh said. Both new sororities are also ready to move on plans to build new sorority houses.
As of Tuesday (Aug. 21), just 800 men had signed up IFC (Interfraternity Council) recruitment, but Pugh said he expected that number to rise by the time men’s rush starts on Friday (Aug. 24). The UA is also welcoming two additional fraternities: Kappa Alpha and Beta Theta Pi.
“The big thing is that we know that if we can engage our students, we’re more like to retain them,” Pugh said.
Next up for Gearhart, a meeting with Schwab. His and his wife's twin offices at Fowler House were dedicated to Schwab because she plays such a critical role in keeping them organized and updated on the chancellor’s activities and appearances.
“My life … I couldn’t do it without Judy,” he said.
They meet formally once a week.
Says Schwab: “Lots of times I can hear him in my head.” Then under her breath, she adds, “Sometimes I’m way off.”
First on Judy’s list: Will Gearhart make a few remarks at the Sept. 14 ribbon cutting for the new Chancellor hotel at the request of co-owner Sam Alley? “Yep,” he’ll do it, he says.
Next, she tells him she has picked two UA students to speak at an upcoming meeting of the Arkansas Lottery Commission. Each will talk about how their stipends from money raised by the lottery complement other scholarships they’ve gotten. They’ll talk about how the added windfall has affected their educational aspirations.
Gearhart chimes in: “It has had an impact, but it is not the main driver of our enrollment growth. Most of our students are pretty serious about going to school, and even without the lottery scholarship, they would find a way.”
Then, Schwab updates the chancellor on Kris Katrosh, director of the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. In about a month, Katrosh will move into a new role in University Relations, providing video to go with news stories on a regular basis, perhaps daily.
Gearhart stresses the need to find a replacement, as difficult as that will be.
“Let’s move on it as fast as we can,” he says.
Former Sen. David Pryor, now a member of the UA board of trustees, has a vision for sending out “story buses” like NPR’s StoryCorps. Any entity out of central Arkansas wants to dedicate $50,000 to the cause, though the total cost of the project is expected to be much higher.
The idea is to capture some untold stories about Arkansas, particularly in the southern part of the state.
They also go over the guest list for an upcoming dinner for 14 at Fowler House before she leaves.
After a small lunch salad in the Arkansas Union with friend Mario Ramirez of Dallas, comes the meeting Gearhart’s been waiting for. Suzanne McCray, vice provost for enrollment services, comes into his office holding the day’s enrollment figures.
“How are we doing?” he asks.
There are 24,263 students enrolled at the university as of Tuesday, and she assumes the ranks will top the predicted 24,700 mark.
Gearhart is pleased. The number of students is almost twice as many as any other institution in the state. And the UA has more freshmen than other comparable institutions (such as Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), McCray said.
Enrollment predictions are done using a complicated formula that includes eight different variables. From that, officials try to decipher how many students apply, how many will be admitted and how many will actually enroll. The UA has drawn more from eastern and central Arkansas than it did last year.
“I just think there are more high school students aware of what’s going on here and are taking note of of that,” Gearhart said. “More people are staying in Arkansas and looking at us.”
He made several personal appearances at schools across the state, such as those in El Dorado.
“It’s important to show the flag. It’s important for me to get around the state and and meet the principals and the superintendents.”
More than anything, he says he hopes to encourage young people to go to school, no matter where they choose to go. Arkansas is 49th behind West Virginia in the lowest number of residents who have bachelor’s degrees.
“People are healthier, wealthier, wiser and happier if they’re educated,” the chancellor said.
McCray leaves and in comes Vice Chancellor for Advancement Brad Choate and Hardin Young, manager of executive communications.
They’re here to write a script for a speech Gearhart will give a roomful of volunteer fundraisers on Sept. 14.
The university is in the quiet phase of a large-scale fundraising campaign that’s expected to kick into full gear a couple of years from now. As of now, there is no formal name or monetary goal.
“It’s sort of the worst kept secret,” Gearhart said.
He directs Young to write a 12-15 minute speech concentrating on his dreams and aspirations for the university. The lead-in will include Gearhart’s success with the $1 billion campaign he led several years ago.
“When we celebrate the sesquicentennial, what is possible for us? I think we can become one of the Top 50 public research universities in America,” aspires Gearhart.
“I think this has to be put in the context of not only how this is good for the university, but how it’s good for the state,” Choate adds.
“The vehicle to get there is this campaign,” he says.
They dub the speech Vision 150, and they’re off to carry out the chancellor’s wishes.
Gearhart is jovial, cheerful even, as he meets with George Turner, a summer intern in the UA’s development office. Turner is afflicted with spina bifida and confined to a wheelchair. But the good-looking 26-year-old is ambitious and teeming with optimism, and Gearhart relishes it.
When Turner graduates in December, the chancellor is hoping to add Turner to the development staff full-time.
“Selfishly, I’d like to see you move into a role like that,” he says.
The rest of the afternoon is filled with a meeting with Associated Student Government President Tori Pohler; a post-mortem on 2012 commencement with some senior members of Gearhart’s administrative staff; and a welcome reception for new Walton College of Business dean, Eli Jones, and his wife, Fern, at Alumni House.
It’s hard to imagine walking into a classroom as late as 6 p.m. to contribute to White’s leadership class. But then again, getting the job done is what leadership is all about.