CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp answered questions from the UNC Board of Governors for nearly an hour Friday at a closed-door meeting, where he explained the latest scandal to rock the campus.
Thorp acknowledged that the week had been difficult in the aftermath of the resignations of the university’s top fundraiser, Matt Kupec, and Tami Hansbrough, a gifts officer and mother of former UNC-CH basketball star Tyler Hansbrough. The two, who have been in a romantic relationship, stepped down after Thorp found that they had charged questionable travel expenses.
The situation emerged after The News & Observer sought records about the activities of the fundraisers.
Board Chairman Peter Hans and UNC President Tom Ross declined to disclose what was discussed in the session, which was closed to the media under legal provisions that protect personnel information. But Ross said board members he had talked to before and after the meeting expressed the view that Thorp had handled the issue appropriately.
Hans offered this assessment of Thorp’s performance: “Chancellor Thorp has performed well by many measurements, in terms of research funding, quality of the student body, private fundraising, a number of metrics. And of course, it’s equally clear he needs to be successful in clearing up some lingering issues on campus.”
Ross praised Thorp for the speed with which he handled the recent problem.
“The chancellor, in this most recent situation, acted quickly, decisively in a circumstance that was clearly inappropriate,” Ross said.
He also said Thorp had taken several actions to deal with academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies department, where no-show classes had been heavily enrolled with football and basketball players. The measures are designed to make sure that something like that never happens again, Ross said.
However, Ross added, “Every time something like this happens, there are concerns, both by the board, by the president, by lots of people, and we continue to be vigilant in our responsibility to watch the circumstance closely.”
About a year ago, Thorp had a thorough review, which happens on a four-year cycle, Ross said. He will undergo a less detailed two-year evaluation in the next year.
Kupec had initially established a new fundraising position in his office, and Hansbrough was interested in it. But Thorp said he intervened to stop that because of their relationship and the university’s nepotism rules.
Kupec then pushed for a fundraising job under the supervision of Winston Crisp, the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs. Hansbrough applied and got the position. Both Thorp and Crisp approved the arrangement, which allowed the university to bypass concerns about the Kupec-Hansbrough relationship. Hansbrough’s $95,000-a-year salary was funded through Kupec’s office.
Thorp described the UNC board as supportive of him when he emerged from Friday’s closed session, which lasted about 50 minutes.
“I just talked to them about the situation and answered their questions,” Thorp said. “They were appreciative of how hard this has been, frustrated with the way it takes away from all of the positives. I mean, this is the same month when we broke the top 10 in federal research support, and we can’t get anyone to write about it because we’ve got this. So I think there’s a lot of frustration about that, but I feel very good working for this board.”
A few weeks ago, UNC-CH announced that it had risen from 16th to the ninth-ranked university in the nation in the level of federal research dollars, which totaled nearly $546 million in fiscal 2010.
Ross called it “a huge accomplishment” and said UNC-CH has many more positive stories that go untold.
“From all the information we have at this point, … there is one professor and one departmental assistant that did something wrong,” Ross said, referring to the African studies department. “And now we have one vice chancellor and one fundraiser that did something wrong, and those people are no longer with the university. There are a lot of people – a lot of faculty, a lot of staff – that continue to go to work every day at that university and make it great.”
‘Unfortunately fairly frequently’
Thorp said an internal audit regarding the fundraisers’ travel expenses continues and could be finished in a few weeks. The state auditor’s office has been notified about the internal audit but so far is not involved in the review, he said.
“It’s a high-profile story, but it’s the kind of incident that comes up unfortunately fairly frequently in universities,” he said, adding that UNC-CH’s internal audit department deals with questions about improper charges by employees routinely.
Thorp said the university eventually may decide to hire outside help in tightening controls on travel expenses by employees.
Several reviews of the academic fraud are under way, as well as a State Bureau of Investigation probe of possible criminal conduct. A Board of Governors panel is looking into UNC-CH’s handling of the matter, and Thorp brought in former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin and an outside consulting firm to conduct an independent review of academic issues. That work continues.
“It’s been a tough couple of years, and it’s hard,” Thorp said. “But I feel like we’re identifying problems that have arisen because of policies that have been around for a long time. It’s frustrating to keep finding a new one, but if we find them we can correct them, and I think the decisive action we took on this one sends a strong message. It also shows us that there’s one more thing that we need to have strong oversight on.”
Thorp said he’d rather not be consumed with such problems, but added, “We’ve entered an era where there is more scrutiny and more need for accountability, and we’re responding to that.”