CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, consumed by more than two years of sports-related scandals, has told his successor that dealing with intercollegiate athletics is the most important part of the job.
“That’s not right that it’s that way,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We should try to figure out a way to change that. But for the time being, if you’re running a school that has big-time sports, if there’s a problem, it can overwhelm you.”
On Friday, when a panel convenes in Chapel Hill to hash out ideas for the proper academic-athletic balance, Thorp will throw out a proposal: Why not lift the burden from the nation’s college presidents and put more control back in the hands of campus athletic directors?
The idea is sure to be a provocative conversation starter when sports and higher education figures gather at UNC-CH to dive into a seemingly never-ending debate about college sports and its inherent problems.
Thorp’s suggestion runs counter to the strategy advocated by the late UNC President Bill Friday and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. They argued that putting firm and sole control in the hands of college presidents would bring balance and integrity to sports.
“When you look at all the problems we’re having and as I see my colleagues around the country struggling,” Thorp said, “it just makes me wonder whether this whole thing was a good idea.”
He rattled off recent scandals at Rutgers, at Ohio State and at UNC-CH.
Thorp said he could see a scenario in which college presidents step back from the daily questions and problems surrounding athletics, instead exercising a more distant oversight. That way, he said, people with expertise in athletics would be on the front lines rather than a “a bunch of college professors who only started dealing with athletics the day they got new jobs.”
The Knight Commission, since the 1990s, has said that the key to reform in college athletics is presidential control. The theory is that the academic head of the university would keep watch, free from interference from board members and boosters.
Some say that handing over more power to athletic directors would be a mistake.
“I think faculty would be averse to even the perception of chancellors giving up control,” said Steven Bachenheimer, a professor of microbiology and immunology, who was a co-author of the faculty report that called for the broader discussion at UNC-CH. “I still think it’s important for presidents to be the public face because (athletics) involves students.”
A crowd is expected for the first meeting of the panel Friday, which was convened by Thorp and suggested by 2012 faculty report that examined athletics at UNC-CH.
The panel will be chaired by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, a coalition of the nation’s leading research campuses.
Speakers at Friday’s event include several faculty leaders, UNC-CH Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player. Thorp will also make remarks.
Thorp is leaving July 1 to become provost of Washington University in St. Louis, a Division III school without big-money sports. He has said he wanted to go to a place with less emphasis on athletics.
Thorp said he has been so distracted by athletics that it was difficult to accomplish other priorities. If presidents were freed from some of their athletics responsibilities, Thorp said, they could concentrate on the important issues facing higher education – training the next generation of leaders, creating knowledge to drive the economy, raising money to alleviate financial problems. That would be more productive than worrying about football, he said.
“It would just be nice if we could take these institutions that are so important to American society and break out of that somehow,” he said. “And I’m not saying at all that we should get out of big-time sports. That’s not going to happen.”
When he became chancellor five years ago, Thorp said he never would have dreamed of the problems he would face in athletics, including an NCAA investigation and resulting sanctions. Later, academic fraud investigations turned up no-show classes heavily enrolled with athletes, poorly supervised independent study courses and forged faculty signatures. He has repeatedly said that athletics neither originated nor caused the academic fraud.
Thorp acknowledged that he was caught up in the narrative that athletic scandal wouldn’t happen in Chapel Hill. “In order to be vigilant you can’t be telling yourself, ‘Oh we’re one of the places that never gets in trouble,’ he said. “That’s part of what hurt us.”
Now, though, he added, “I think it’s a very healthy thing that we’ve moved beyond that. It’s now OK to say, well, we have to be really vigilant, really hard-nosed about addressing problems. It was very hard to say that kind of thing five years ago.”