UNC caps rough week with stirring rally for Holden Thorp

The chancellor says he still plans to resign in June because that is best for him and the university. The process of finding his replacement begins next week.

jstancill@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2012 

— A tumultuous week at UNC-Chapel Hill ended Friday with an almost triumphant, feel-good rally for Chancellor Holden Thorp, four days after he announced he will resign.

Two years of athletic-related scandal had taken a toll on the 48-year-old chancellor, who on Monday announced plans to leave at the end of the academic year in June.

The throng of supporters Friday begged him to stay, but Thorp told them it is best that he step aside, for the good of his family and the university. He will return to the lab and the classroom as a chemistry professor.

In the next nine months, Thorp has pledged to implement changes in policies to prevent a recurrence of the trouble that dominated his tenure, including academic fraud, improper tutoring and more recently, travel abuses by fundraisers. Next week, the university’s Board of Trustees will begin the process of finding someone to take Thorp’s place.

In the noontime sunshine Friday, hundreds gathered outside the historic administration building, where they scribbled thanks on a long scroll of paper — messages such as “We trust you Holden Thorp” and “Keep it together for the kids! You da best!” They wore buttons that said “Heels for Holden” and stickers that said “Thank you, Chancellor Thorp.”

The event was part pep rally, part love fest, part music happening. Student a cappella groups performed, and a popular student band called Mipso Trio sang Tom Petty’s hit, “I Won’t Back Down.”

Like the song lyrics, there was defiance in the air. For his handling of the athletic mess, Thorp had been pilloried in newspaper editorials, in online comments and on blogs. But on his turf Friday, he was a hero. A line of speakers, from mayors to housekeepers to doctors to students, spoke about why they admired Thorp.

“I won’t deny that the issues that surround the resignation are important, and they need to be addressed,” said Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center in the university’s hospital. “But they don’t define this university, and they don’t define the job that Chancellor Holden Thorp has done over the years.”

Student Body President Will Leimenstoll said Thorp worked to build a place where affordability complemented, rather than competed with, academic excellence. The university isn’t perfect, Leimenstoll said, but the scandals have unfairly overshadowed the good. He encouraged a letter-writing campaign to newspapers across the state.

“As I understand it, Chancellor Thorp wants to step down because he’s tired and worn out,” Leimenstoll said. “He’s borne the brunt of the scandals of the past two years, constantly taking criticism from all directions on every move he makes. I don’t think he’s tired because he’s sick of serving the students, faculty or staff here. … I want the chancellor to rethink his decision to resign, but more importantly, I want us to do a better job of not leaving him, nor any future chancellor, to fight this on his own.”

Thorp was lauded for his open-door policy, his collaborative approach and his affection for students. One recalled that he would sing with students at graduation; another said he would “shake his booty” with students at orientation.

‘Always been on our side’

Leigh Fairley, a senior from High Point, said Thorp helped student leaders hone their ideas, and when they presented him with a good one, he suggested they run with it. “Chancellor Thorp has always been our side,” she said.

Brenda Denzler, a communications specialist with the Medical Foundation of North Carolina, called Thorp a principled man with “a strong sense of fair play and an unshakable commitment to openness and honesty.”

When things went awry, she said, “he has helped our community stand up with dignity and honor to accept responsibility, something that not all leaders would have countenanced.”

Some who have traditionally been at odds with university leadership backed Thorp on Friday, including the mayors of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the university housekeepers, who won a lawsuit against the administration in the 1990s.

James Holman, a member of the housekeeping staff, credited Thorp with raising the minimum salary and sponsoring a community garden.

“Most of the housekeepers get vegetables every week from this garden,” he said. “This garden is great.”

Thorp and his family, bedecked in Carolina blue, emerged from South Building toward the end of the speeches, eliciting thunderous cheers.

‘Enormous challenge’

Earlier in the week, Thorp had admitted that if he had it to do over again, he would do some things differently. “I would get information sooner, I would take action sooner,” he said. “But I think it emphasizes what an enormous challenge we have to be the great public university that we are.”

Thorp has been criticized both for firing former football coach Butch Davis and for not firing him soon enough. He was derided for putting too much trust in Davis and in Julius Nyang’oro, the former African and Afro-American studies department head who was at the center of the academic fraud scandal.

And while Thorp initially had stopped a top fundraiser, Matt Kupec, from hiring his girlfriend, the mother of former UNC basketball star Tyler Hansbrough, Thorp later approved her hiring in another department. The two fundraisers eventually resigned when Thorp said he found their university travel was “personally driven.” Records show Thorp also flew with the fundraisers on several occasions, though not on the trips in question.

On Friday, he wasn’t making apologies, in what sounded like a stirring speech by an idealistic candidate on election night.

“These are challenging times in public higher education, but you are showing now that our future is bright,” he said, his voice rising. “We will not waver from our commitment to access to higher education. We will not waver from our commitment to access to health care. And we will not waver from our commitment to the pursuit of knowledge that satisfies human curiosity and enables citizenship and equity and prosperity. Together we are the light on the hill. Let it shine!”

Then he led the crowd in “Hark the Sound,” the school song, complete with arms locked, swaying side to side, and the final cheer, “Go to hell, Duke!”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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