A surprise announcement came about this past week when G. David Gearhart, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas, announced he would resign on July 31.
A national search for the next Chancellor of the state’s largest campus will soon be underway.
A Fayetteville native, Gearhart defied what the late writer Thomas Wolfe, famously proclaimed, “You can’t go home again.”
Silencing most of his seemingly constant crowd of critics over the past 36-months, Gearhart, should be remembered as having accomplished much during more than six years in the job. Those years have witnessed tremendous growth and expansion.
This only calls to mind the ill-fated tenure of the “last Fayetteville boy” – a university president in the post World War II era named J. William Fulbright. His leadership flame, too, burned brightly in steering the state’s flagship campus in an era of growth and expansion. He served admirably, until he and his family newspaper (his mom ran the Northwest Arkansas Times) wrote scathing editorials that ran afoul of gubernatorial politics of the day.
Fulbright was booted by the Trustees from the campus office. He landed in politics and the rest of his timeline is history.
It is a different exit strategy that Gearhart put together this past week as he hopes to leave with a positive outlook for the flagship campus. Speaking to the campus newspaper, The Arkansas Traveler, Gearhart said spending more time with family was the primary reason for the move. It was the time with family over the holidays that made him see the need to step down.
And putting as positive a spin as he could place on the announcement, Gearhart acknowledged the benefits of ending his tenure on a high note.
“I feel that we’ve accomplished a great deal here at the university,” he told the campus newspaper. “We’re on very solid footing. Our enrollment is at a record high; we’ve done some incredible things, and I want to go out on a high – I want to quit when I’m ahead.”
Gearhart has been chancellor since 2008, overseeing a period of explosive student growth. The university's total enrollment was 19,194 students in fall 2008. Enrollment grew by 37% during Gearhart's time as chancellor, with 26,237 students enrolled this fall.
Thomas Wolfe would have been surprised. Coming back home, especially in such a high profile position, is, well, hard to pull off. Perhaps Wolfe described it best: “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”
Gearhart did come back to Fayetteville to help raise money. He did that job for a decade, by all accounts, very well. In fact, his fund raising skills were a major role in getting him the campus management job when former UA Chancellor John White retired.
The past 36 months have been filled with fund raising snafus, a coaching scandal, and wrestling with legislators over audits, and those things likely have taken a toll on Gearhart. These are and were the times that test strong men’s resolves. Gearhart weathered that particular storm, but has apparently lost the drive to continue to soldier on. Especially divided was he and his boss on a proposed e-Versity initiative for Internet learning.
In his announcement Gearhart said that despite speculation, his decision was not related to pressures from controversial events within the last few years.
“This was entirely my decision. No one put any pressure on me whatsoever,” he told the media.
I wish Chancellor Gearhart well as he sees the sun setting on his time as leader at the state’s largest campus.
All eyes and attention should now be focused on the future of the next leader.