UNC’s Holden Thorp steps out of the spotlight

jstancill@newsobserver.comMay 19, 2013 

  • Best and worst of times What were Holden Thorp’s best and worst days as chancellor? His answers had nothing to do with athletics:

    Best day: April 24, 2012 when President Barack Obama gave a speech on campus and taped “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” “The day President Obama came was pretty fun because the weather was perfect and the students were really into it and the whole Jimmy Fallon thing was just really great. It was pretty wonderful.”

    Worst day: Actually, there were 23. That’s how many students died during his tenure. “You know you’re doing your job then. One of the things you always struggle with is whether you’re doing the best thing for the university with your time that you could be. When a student dies and you’re tending to that, there’s nothing in your head that says I should be doing something other than what I’m doing right now.”

— Holden Thorp seems to be enjoying his farewell tour.

He played keyboard with a student band at Cat’s Cradle, the Carrboro rock club. He was given lifetime delegate status by the university’s employee association. He came up with a David Letterman-style top 10 list for his successor, Carol Folt, in which he offered this advice: “Eat at the K&W at least once a semester. Get the fried okra.”

Another tip to Folt was to watch “Friday Night Lights,” a TV drama that revolves around a football team. “As soon as possible,” he advised her.

Thorp is winding down his time as chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, the university where he arrived as a freshman in 1982 after applying to only one school.

It wasn’t supposed to end this soon for the talented chemist and entrepreneur who rapidly ascended from professor to department chairman to dean and, in 2008, chancellor – at the tender age of 43.

In a recent interview, Thorp said he wished he had watched “Friday Night Lights” five years ago. An education about athletics would’ve come in handy.

After being consumed for more than two years with an athletic scandal that led to the revelation of a major academic scandal, Thorp is giving up his beloved Carolina. He is resigning at the end of June to become provost – second-in-command – at Washington University in St. Louis.

Last month, he convened a panel of experts to come up with better ways to balance academics and athletics at the university. And at a recent faculty meeting, Thorp told professors he wouldn’t weigh in on the debate about a Thursday night football game this fall in Chapel Hill.

“There’s probably something from Shakespeare or classical Greek that describes what I’ve done by doing this panel and then leaving,” he said with a laugh. “It’s sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi dying at the end of Star Wars and leaving Luke Skywalker to fight the rebellion by himself.”

Some critics, too

Thorp may be leaving the battlefield to others, but he’s also not afraid to lob a few grenades as he departs. He created a stir last month when he said college presidents have pressing demands and therefore should leave sports to athletic directors.

That was sacrilege to college athletics reformers who have said the only way to assure integrity is to have college presidents in charge.

Hodding Carter III, a UNC professor of leadership and public policy and former Knight Foundation president, said Thorp knows as well as anyone that big-time college sports can take a leader down fast. “This booger is not an 800-pound gorilla; it is a Godzilla and if you don’t shoot the bastard right away, it will eat you alive,” he said.

But, he said, Thorp’s proposal is way off base. “You really have got to get control of it, but you don’t get control of it by letting the guy who raised Godzilla become the person who now is supposed to supervise Godzilla, and that’s what the athletic directors are, and the conference guys.”

Thorp knows his suggestion was, to say the least, provocative.

“Bill Friday’s ghost and Hodding Carter and all those people are ready to kill me,” he said, mentioning the late UNC president and current faculty member, both of whom worked on reforms for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “They don’t admit that their presidential control idea didn’t work.”

It didn’t work in the case of Thorp, who said he took the job with no inkling about the athletics minefield ahead. Early in his tenure, he was worried about student safety after the murder of student body president Eve Carson and the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

During his five years on the job, he would wrestle successfully with state budget cuts, town politics and issues for the university’s lowest-paid workers. He repeatedly mentions what he says are the central indicators of the university’s health: UNC-CH has climbed from 16th to ninth nationally in federal research dollars, and undergraduate applications for admission jumped 43 percent. At the same time, private giving has been steady, even during a recession.

Still, Thorp was dogged by scandals, some with seeds planted before he took over as chancellor. The trouble came in waves: improper benefits for football players, academic misconduct involving a tutor, academic fraud in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The revelations came as a shock to the Tar Heel faithful, who liked to think they did things the right way, “the Carolina Way.”

He fired football coach Butch Davis, prompting anger from some fans and derision from others who said the action came too late.

Layers of investigations were launched, by the NCAA, the State Bureau of Investigation, a Board of Governors panel, a review by former Gov. Jim Martin and more recently, the university’s accrediting body.

Lessons in PR

There were other problems, too. The university’s top fundraiser resigned after spending university money on trips with his girlfriend, the mother of a former UNC basketball star, in some cases to see her sons play. Thorp had approved an arrangement where the office of the fundraiser, Matt Kupec, was paying for Tami Hansbrough’s job, even though she was working in a different department. Thorp announced his resignation soon after the news broke.

This year, several women filed a federal complaint accusing the university of mishandling sexual assault cases. That has led to campus protests, the hiring of a consultant and two federal investigations.

Too often, Thorp said, he found himself in front of microphones trying to explain the problems and pledging to fix them.

Looking back, he said he would have done some things differently when it came to public communication and crisis management.

“But it’s always easy to see those things at the end,” he said. “It’s really hard when you’re going through it. It’s real easy to look at somebody else’s crisis and know what to do. It’s a whole different deal when you have a big bureaucratic organization, trying to make quick decisions and getting people on board.”

The academic scandal in the African studies department was perhaps the most embarrassing blow, with no-show classes, poorly supervised independent study courses and unauthorized grade changes. Martin’s probe found more than 200 irregular courses going back to the mid-1990s.

The blame was pinned on a former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro and a manager, Debbie Crowder, who had close personal ties to the athletics department. Neither works at the university now.

One good result, Thorp said, is that a myth has been deconstructed.

“It was a failure of lots of people over a lot of years to detect it,” he said of the academic scandal. “I think that was fueled by this notion that these kinds of things didn’t happen here.”

Still, though, he resists the notion that the African studies scandal originated with athletics.

“I don’t think we have any evidence to suggest that this whole scheme was devised specifically for athletes,” he said. “But I don’t want to be the slightest bit defensive about the fact that student-athletes certainly took advantage of it and they had lots of ways to know about it.

“The personal relationships that Debbie Crowder had were very conspicuous ways in which they would have (known about it). Does that make it an athletic scandal or an academic scandal? I don’t know.”

The intense public interest surely revolved around athletics. If no athletes had been enrolled in the fake classes, he asserted, no one would have taken much notice.

“And that part is sad,” he said, “because it would have been just as bad a thing.”

Support from students, staff

Thorp said the panel he appointed will come out with recommendations sometime this fall. Meanwhile, dozens of policies and procedures are in place on both the academic and athletic sides of the university to prevent a recurrence.

There have been numerous personnel changes, too, and Thorp said he has faith in Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director, and Larry Fedora, the football coach.

“We didn’t have an elegant way of getting there, but it’s all pretty good now,” he said. “I’m proud of all that, and it was an honor to do it, but I’m ready to take a break.”

When Thorp decided in September to step down, he said he had done a lot of thinking about whether he was the right kind of leader for that moment in the university’s history. In July, he had been to the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, where he learned about his strengths and weaknesses.

Thorp said those who chose him to be chancellor obviously couldn’t have foreseen that the young leader would have to deal with an athletics meltdown. They had no way of knowing “that we were going to need somebody who had a full tank of gas for going on TV and talking to the media and dealing with a crisis.”

He really didn’t want to be a politician or a public figure. He was more focused on the internal workings of the university.

When public scrutiny and criticism were at a fever pitch last fall, faculty, staff and students were at rallies begging Thorp to stay. In the central quad, they rolled out long scrolls, where they wrote messages of praise.

James Holman, on the housekeeping staff, sent a letter thanking Thorp for working to solve the staff’s long-standing issues and working conditions. Thorp was credited with raising minimum salaries and starting a community garden for workers.

“It has been decades since the university has had a chancellor with the gift of being able to listen and to hear, as well as the determination to act,” Holman wrote.

Working the inside

Thorp said he hopes history will judge him as someone who did his best to take care of the people in the university community.

“There’s a lot of commentary about whether I should have done things differently when it comes to taking care of the outside,” he said. “But I know how to take care of the inside of a university.”

Many say Thorp did well at building good relationships with faculty, employees and students, keeping an open door to people.

“On those people and caring issues, he really gave more time than most chancellors,” said Dan Gitterman, a professor of public policy. At the same time, Gitterman said, Thorp did not have an adequate support system of senior advisers who could help with some of the big issues that became overwhelming – athletics and the recent investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault cases.

“Those are things you need people right in your office who can help give you advice on,” Gitterman said. “Those are big, big operations and he was home alone.”

In St. Louis, where Thorp jokes the winters are colder and the summers are hotter, he won’t have to deal with big-time athletics and its pitfalls at the NCAA Division III school.

As provost, he will oversee the academic enterprise, while his new boss, Chancellor Mark Wrighton, will be in the spotlight. Thorp said he looks forward to putting more emphasis on graduate students at WashU, a respected research university that has built strong undergraduate programs.

At 48, he has time to settle into the second-in-command role. He said he had two other job opportunities, but he won’t discuss them.

Though he had announced his intention to stay on the chemistry faculty at UNC-CH, it seemed a good time to make a change, he said. Both of the Thorp children are leaving home in the fall – daughter Emma to a boarding school in Virginia, and son John to UNC-CH.

So Thorp won’t be away from Chapel Hill for long. He’ll be back in late summer as a Carolina parent when his son goes through freshman orientation.

In the Midwest, he and his wife, Patti – known as an exuberant basketball fan – will root for the Bears. And, Thorp said, they might squeeze in a road trip or two to catch another team.

“I can’t wait to go to Louisville and South Bend and watch the Tar Heels play. That’ll be great.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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