When it came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it seemed the chancellorship was almost Holden Thorp’s destiny.
He’d been one of those people who demands the best of himself in whatever he does, whether it’s the most complicated research in chemistry or playing guitar and bass. He studied at the university, was tapped for a prestigious Kenan professorship at a young age and rose quickly as an administrator.
Indeed, Thorp is now only 48 years old and has been chancellor of the Chapel Hill campus since 2008.
With his resignation (effective at the end of the school year) announced yesterday, Thorp hardly brings to an end what remains a viable career with potential for great achievement. He will be returning to the faculty. But his decision to step down does represent the turning of one page in the university’s recent troubled history.
Some problems Thorp inherited. He didn’t hire former football coach Butch Davis, who was the darling of athletics boosters because he showed signs of bringing the football program to national prominence. But as clouds gathered over Davis because of an agent-connected assistant coach and athletes receiving improper benefits and a tutor apparently helping too much with academic work, Thorp continued to stand by the coach – until the problems mushroomed into a scandal rooted in academic fraud.
Those difficulties have involved the African and Afro-American Studies department and special treatment for athletes, especially football players. Several investigations now are in progress and must continue regardless of Thorp’s status, as the university’s integrity is at stake.
But it may be that the recent resignations of two university fundraisers put Thorp in a position where he felt he had to resign. Now-former Vice Chancellor Matt Kupec tried to hire a woman with whom he was personally involved to work in his (fundraising) office, a clear conflict of interest which Thorp stepped in to stop. But then the woman, Tami Hansbrough, mother of former star basketball player Tyler Hansbrough, was hired as a fundraiser in another department, with money from Kupec’s budget. Thorp made a mistake when he signed off on that arrangement.
The UNC system’s Board of Governors and the campus Board of Trustees sounded support for the chancellor, but Thorp said in resigning that he always had done the best thing for the university and believed he was doing the right thing in leaving his job.
It was a gracious and honorable exit. And make no mistake: Holden Thorp’s tenure as chancellor has been troubled in some respects, but his service to the university has been, overall, exemplary. He believes in the university, its mission and its students, with whom he has seemed to connect.
That’s why it’s such a shame that his career arc has temporarily gone askew. As his last months as chancellor proceed, we trust Thorp will continue with his objectives of improving research and teaching and the overall experience for students. And we hope that he will indeed remain with the university as a scholar.
The circumstances that led Thorp to his resignation were not the result exclusively of decisions he made or didn’t make. Throughout these last months, Thorp has received much criticism, but no one has questioned his loyalty to the university or his intention to make sound decisions. And even now, no one should.