CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, beleaguered by two years of athletics-related scandals, will resign the position at the end of the academic year and return to a role that he always loved: chemistry professor.
“I will always do what is best for this university,” he said, in making the announcement Monday morning to the surprise of the university community. “This wasn’t an easy decision personally. But when I thought about the university and how important it’s been to me, to North Carolinians and to hundreds of thousands of alumni, my answer became clear.”
Thorp, 48, said no one asked him to resign. Over the weekend, he said, he thought of everything that had happened and decided that stepping aside would be best for the university and for his family.
“As you know it’s been a tough couple of years,” he said in an interview. “I’ve been through a lot of things I didn’t imagine I’d have to go through.”
Others tried to change his mind, including trustees and key faculty leaders who met late Monday to figure out a way to get him to stay.
Thorp was praised for steering the university ably through a budget crisis, boosting fundraising during a down economy and overseeing strides in student quality and research funding. Student applications were up 24 percent this year, and UNC-CH moved from 16th to ninth among research universities in federal research support.
He emphasized innovation and entrepreneurship in education, and made steps to improve town-gown relations with Chapel Hill.
But the chancellor, who rose through the faculty ranks to the top job at age 43, was consumed with what seemed like a constant stream of damaging revelations – improper benefits for football players, academic misconduct involving a tutor and academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies Department.
Along the way, he fired football coach Butch Davis, prompting anger from some boosters and howls from others who thought the action was too little, too late. This year, the NCAA punished the program with a postseason ban, the elimination of scholarships and the extension of UNC’s self-imposed probation to three years.
A shock to UNC-CH
The trouble demoralized and shocked UNC-CH fandom, who had long bragged of doing athletics the right way, “the Carolina way.”
Thorp repeatedly and earnestly pledged to get to the bottom of the problems and clean them up. But the bad news kept coming. The problems in the African studies department included dozens of no-show classes heavily enrolled by athletes, poorly supervised independent study courses and forged faculty signatures. An internal probe identified two people who were responsible – Professor Julius Nyang’oro, who was forced to resign, and a department manager who retired a few years ago.
The situation is still the subject of scrutiny from the State Bureau of Investigation, a panel of the UNC Board of Governors and an independent review led by former Gov. Jim Martin. Thorp himself called for the outside study.
Then last week, another embarrassment dominated the news. The university’s top fundraiser, Matt Kupec, resigned following the discovery of improper travel by him and Tami Hansbrough, another university fundraiser who is the mother of former UNC basketball star Tyler Hansbrough. The two fundraisers were in a romantic relationship, and the creation of Hansbrough’s job became an issue.
On Friday, Thorp explained the latest black eye to the UNC Board of Governors in a closed-door session. Members of the UNC system governing board publicly supported him, despite the ongoing controversy.
UNC President Tom Ross said Thorp notified him about his decision on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s been a hard time on him and on his family, so I understand why he has made the decision,” Ross said. “I’m disappointed because I think the potential that he brings to the job is great, and it’s always difficult for a university to go through a leadership change.”
Wade Hargrove, chairman of the UNC-CH trustees, said the university is complex and difficult to oversee under the best of circumstances.
“I think the chancellor has spent two years trying to get to the bottom of the problems and identify those responsible,” Hargrove said. “I believe he’s genuinely committed, sincerely committed, to finding the proper balance between athletics and academics.”
UNC ‘needed a scapegoat’
The reaction on campus was mixed, but many expressed sadness that the athletic mess had claimed a brilliant academic leader who struggled to manage it all.
Joe DeSimone, a chemistry professor and longtime colleague, said Thorp had made many advances but the turmoil had taken a toll on him.
“The need for strategic planning on this campus is past due,” DeSimone said. “The campus has been distracted for a long time, and the ability to do these things that are important has been tabled for awhile. I think it’s going to be really important for us to start plotting our path forward here.”
Some thought Thorp’s departure was inevitable.
“I don’t think any of the scandals were his fault, but the university needed a scapegoat,” said Veronica Koven-Matasy, a graduate student in library science. “I don’t think he had a choice but to resign.”
Jackson Sutton, 21, a senior from Winston-Salem, said many on campus were disappointed.
“Holden Thorp genuinely cares about people,” Sutton said. “I think he’s done a lot of good for this university. I guess that any time a scandal comes to a university, it’s the person at the top under fire.”
Raised in Fayetteville, Thorp spent most of his career at UNC-CH, as an undergraduate, a chemistry professor, a department chairman and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences before becoming chancellor in 2008. He got his start as an assistant professor at N.C. State University.
He will return to the faculty, where he holds a Kenan professorship, one the highest endowed chairs. As a professor, he developed technology for electronic DNA chips and founded spinoff companies.
“I’m excited about going back to chemistry,” Thorp said. “It’s where I spent most of my career. It’s going to be great.”
Popular with students, Thorp was known for his musical talent, whether playing piano at a fundraising event, jamming on electric guitar or cheering on a student band at Cat’s Cradle, a rock club in Carrboro. He relished his time with students. Last week, he led a candlelight vigil for Faith Hedgepeth, a student who was found dead in her apartment, the victim of a homicide.
Changes to be made
With nine months to go until his departure, Thorp said, there is time to enact about 70 recommendations to tighten procedures and oversight to prevent a recurrence of the problems. “This will be a better and stronger place,” he said.
But will he be at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, when the Tar Heels take on the East Carolina Pirates?
“Heck, yeah,” he said. “I’m the chancellor.”
Dan Kane, Jeanna Smialek and Memet Walker contributed to this report.