From the Editor

Drescher: Thorp shared traits with UNC hero Graham

jdrescher@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2012 

“Where are the Frank Porter Grahams and Bill Fridays of today?” asked an online commenter, referring to two of the University of North Carolina’s greatest leaders.

The comment was posted on newsobserver.com and printed in The News & Observer after UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp said he would resign the position and return to teaching.

The commenter raised a fair question. I think the answer is: Thorp is the Frank Porter Graham of today. Because he’s stepping down at age 48, Thorp isn’t likely to become as nationally known as Graham, who became a U.S. senator. But he shares many traits with Graham.

Graham was UNC president from 1930 to 1949. He attended the university as an undergraduate, taught at the university (history) and was devoted to the students, the faculty and the institution. He stopped on campus sidewalks to talk with students, knew their names and invited groups of them to his home. He listened to them. They called him Dr. Frank.

Like Graham, Thorp was born in Fayetteville and attended UNC as an undergraduate. He taught at the university (chemistry). He is devoted to the students, the faculty and the institution. He stops to talk with students, knows many of them by name and gives them his cellphone number. He listens to them. They call him Holden.

Thorp, who works in Graham’s old office, keeps a portrait of him there.

After Thorp said he was leaving the chancellor’s job, faculty members, trustees and students urged him to reconsider. That says much about Thorp.

Like Graham, Thorp is a trusting person, especially of members of the UNC community. After allegations surfaced about violations in the football program, including improper benefits from agents and inappropriate help from a tutor, Thorp embraced Coach Butch Davis. He did that even though Davis had hired a top assistant with a reputation among his peers for cutting corners. Thorp eventually backtracked and fired Davis.

When allegations arose about academic irregularities, Thorp praised the department head as “a great colleague.” Shortly after, Thorp accepted his resignation.

When UNC’s top fundraiser, also an alum, wanted to hire the woman he was dating, Thorp objected. But later he signed off on a plan for her to raise money while based in another office.

As one campus critic pointed out, UNC had a rogue tutor, a rogue assistant coach, a rogue agent, a rogue department head and a rogue administrative assistant. You could add to the list a rogue fundraiser and a rogue basketball mom. That’s a lot of rogues for one campus. Thorp wanted to believe the people who worked for him were honest and well-intentioned.

Naive sides

Graham was a humanitarian. Many considered him the finest man they had ever met. But in advocating for needed change in the South in the 1930s and ’40s, he sometimes aligned himself with groups that had questionable motives, tactics or leaders. Some of his loyal supporters thought Graham could be naive.

Thorp’s naiveté was about the corrosive tentacles of big-time college sports. Thorp is not a sports fan. Before he became chancellor, Thorp rarely attended UNC football games; he attended one as an undergrad and one as a faculty member. I once asked him why he hugged Butch Davis on the sidelines as the NCAA was bearing down on the football program.

“Because we beat Duke!” he said. True. But so had most every team, including UNC in 20 of the prior 21 matchups.

Mounting problems

Thorp believed there was a Carolina Way that did big-time sports the right way. Now the UNC football team is on probation and there’s evidence that a department head committed academic fraud to help athletes.

Problems were arising faster than Thorp could fix them. The athletic-industrial complex yields to no one. Not even Frank Graham could have tamed it.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; on Twitter @john_drescher

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