Fresh start for Thorp

February 18, 2013 

In his new job as the chief academic officer of Washington University in St. Louis, Holden Thorp still will have a role in oversight of an athletics program, but one on a much smaller scale than the behemoth he leaves behind in Chapel Hill. Washington doesn’t play “big-time” college sports and doesn’t worry about it.

Doubtless the role of Washington University provost will be a welcome change for Thorp, a top scientist and teacher before his fateful appointment as chancellor of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill five years ago. James Moeser, his predecessor, said of Thorp at the time that he was a “supernova.” That reference was meant to convey Thorp as a “stellar explosion,” or to use a more pedestrian term, superstar in the world of academia.

And certainly by any academic measure that was true. Thorp held multiple patents, was widely published, had been a dean, and had engaged in entrepreneurship related to his scientific research. He was 43 when named.

Refreshingly, the choice of Thorp was not a case of an unknown being brought in on the recommendation of a search committee. This was a native North Carolinian, a Carolina man true blue. He played rock ‘n’ roll guitar with students, was at home in academia’s thickest groves and knew the university from the ground up.

Not his doing

With all that promise, what Thorp didn’t have was experience as the head of a massive institution such as Chapel Hill, or much life and professional experience outside the cloistered world of “the academy.” He also didn’t have a crystal ball that could have seen the devastating scandal that was about to hit the university, one that would rightly dethrone a popular football coach and later reveal an embarrassing scandal in the African studies department where phony courses allegedly taught by the department dean were well-known to athletes.

To be sure, the scandals that resulted in Thorp’s resignation last September (effective in June) were not of his making. But his handling of the scandals as they unfolded, from the assistant football coach with the connection to an agent to the players’ contacts with agents to the existence of phony courses in African studies, showed a naïveté and a faith in people below him who didn’t deserve it. When another scandal broke, of a fund-raising vice chancellor who traveled with the mother of a former basketball star on university planes, Thorp’s judgment (he approved the woman’s hiring by another office) was rightly questioned.

Thorp’s watch saw the university’s first serious sanctions regarding athletics in half a century. The legend of the “Carolina way,” that mantra of playing by the rules with success, was blown to bits. The “way,” it seemed, was to create a athletics program with millions of dollars that operated as if it answered to no one. For a while, it seemed it didn’t.

A sad departure

Unfortunately, Thorp’s response to these scandals was anemic, even when he called in former Gov. Jim Martin and a consulting firm to review the problems in academics. The review was unimpressive. It must also be said that Tom Ross, president of the UNC system, left the handling of the problems to Thorp. In hindsight, Ross should have been more active. But in his career in the court system, as the head of a foundation and as president of Davidson College, he’d never seen anything like this, either.

It is regrettable that Holden Thorp, the native son with so many friends and admirers on campus, has to be yet another example of a university administrator who held the reins on athletics too loosely, or was overly influenced by boosters who define their institution by its athletics success and not its academic reputation. This should be a valuable lesson to those who are choosing Thorp’s successor that a chancellor must be broadly experienced, tough and not enamored by anything except his or her university’s core mission of educating young people.

Holden Thorp wanted to be true to that mission. He is a person of character, an honorable person. His absence on the faculty will be felt by colleagues and students. But his move to St. Louis will enable him to carry on his life’s calling in an environment he finds supportive and rewarding.

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