Former Chancellor Gearhart Enjoys New Teaching Role at U of A
April 28, 2017
Dave Gearhart has come full circle, you could say. He started adult life as a college student, and, following an immensely successful career as a university fundraiser and chancellor, he is back in the classroom but now as a professor.
Gearhart retired after eight years as chancellor of the University of Arkansas in 2015. He also served as vice chancellor for University Advancement for 10 years, during which he oversaw the most successful capital campaign in Arkansas history, bringing in more than $1 billion for academic programs.
Before that he worked as a fundraiser at Penn State University, moving from vice president for development and university relations to senior vice president, during which he launched a major capital campaign that raised more than $352 million.
A Fayetteville native, Gearhart’s education also includes time as a Fulbright Scholar studying at Oxford University in England, and he earned a doctorate in higher education and a law degree, both from the University of Arkansas. His bachelor’s degree is from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where he worked as a director of development early in his career.
Gearhart no longer has a staff to manage his calendar, write letters or create presentations for him, but he doesn’t mind. He was reluctant when he first joined the faculty of the College of Education and Health Professions last fall to get a new computer with two monitors but adjusted easily when the college’s computer technicians explained the need for compatibility. He enjoys preparing for the classes he is teaching – fundraising, advancement, governance and the university presidency – and the discussions he has with students.
Erin Duncan is a master’s student in the higher education program. Her undergraduate degree is from the hospitality management program at the U of A. Duncan began working as development manager in the College of Education and Health Professions in the summer of 2014 and became assistant director of development for the college in 2016.
“Dr. Gearhart brings a breadth and depth of knowledge and expertise to the higher education program that creates a completely unique experience for his students,” Duncan said. “His background as one of the nation’s top fundraisers and most respected administrators provides a current and insightful perspective on class materials and topics.”
Gearhart is able to use his experience to capture the attention of students, she said, applying it to discussions about today’s field of advancement, an umbrella that covers fundraising, public relations, communications, alumni relations, special events, government relations and, sometimes, admissions. He brings in speakers working in advancement roles on campus as well as faculty and staff members in leadership positions. His fundraising course provides a how-to from the basics of annual giving, major gift fundraising and planned giving to concepts of a capital campaign and engaging in mock solicitations.
The syllabus for Gearhart’s “University Advancement and the Capital Campaign” course begins with a definition of the professional field and function of institutional advancement. It is “dedicated to attracting philanthropic support from constituents as well as building attitudinal and behavioral support among key publics for colleges and universities,” Gearhart explained. For the required text, he loaned students copies of the book he wrote in 2005 titled Philanthropy, Fundraising, and the Capital Campaign.
“Students have come to realize that advancement is so much a part of any institution, particularly in senior positions such as president and chancellor,” Gearhart said. “Having an advancement background is very important if you want to have a career in university administration.”
In class, the professor and students discuss advancement in the context of generations, technology, current events related to higher education, and changes over the years.
“However, it is still a people business and a process,” Gearhart said. “In the last 20 to 30 years, the degree of involvement of donors has increased. Today, the donor wants to be involved in how funds are used. Before that, people gave and the decision of how to use funds was made by faculty and staff. That shifted with the baby boomer generation.”
Tied in with the desire to understand and influence the use of their donations was the transfer of trillions of dollars from the “greatest generation,” those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II, to the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964.
Fundraising professionals have to be able to explain how a donation will benefit programs and people, Gearhart said.
“There is a feeling among baby boomer donors that they want their gift to have the biggest impact possible,” he said. “Before, donors needed to believe in what you were doing. Now, they want you to tell them how their gift will benefit society and the institution.”
And, that means, the cultivation process has lengthened from an average of between nine months and one year to between 18 months and two years, Gearhart said.
“It takes longer to involve potential donors in the life of an institution,” he said. “They want more evidence that their support will make a difference so it takes longer to convince them this is the place to give.”
In the course on the university presidency that Gearhart is teaching this semester, students discuss primary issues a president or chancellor may face, including some he grappled with as U of A chancellor. A few include managing enrollment, how to handle undocumented immigrants, sexual assault and guns on campus.
Gearhart is working with Michael Miller, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions who is also a professor of higher education, on a book that will contain case studies about higher education fundraising. Gearhart has used some of the case studies in his course to test their validity. He has also written two research-based articles on fundraising, with both being presented at an academic conference later this spring.
Gearhart said he has been very impressed with his students, who come from both the master’s and doctoral programs in higher education. Midway through his second semester of teaching, he hasn’t had even a late assignment from a student yet. Students today may be more savvy in some ways than his generation, he said.
“These students are so much more involved in day-to-day issues,” he said. “Students of today are more with it; they understand issues in a sophisticated way. The students I have worked with are extraordinary.”
Teaching is difficult work and requires a lot of time preparing, Gearhart said. The experience is giving him increased appreciation for faculty.
"I look forward to class, and everyone in the college has been wonderful,” he said. “This has been a great transition, and life is good.”