That man who just walked by? He’s our provost.
Apparently he formed a garage band when he was in school.
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Where did he go to school?
University of North Carolina.
So went the conversation among a gaggle of undergraduates staring at their phones outside a student musical at Washington University in St. Louis earlier this month.
They were waiting for the doors to open to the dress rehearsal of the punk rock-inspired musical and irreverent history lesson, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” The bass player who walked by wore black leather pants, combat boots and a tight Ramones T-shirt.
It was Holden Thorp, the former chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, who’s in a decidedly less stressful role as the No. 2 administrator at Wash. U. – an elite private university with 14,000 students, a large medical school and a top 15 U.S. News ranking.
Thorp gamely joined the student production for six sold-out shows this month. In October, at a donor and alumni event, Thorp accompanied a student singer on the piano. The next day, he was to have hosted an alumni event at a country club in Raleigh, but it was postponed.
That was Oct. 22, the day that Thorp’s successor, Carol Folt, faced a throng of reporters and answered questions about the Wainstein report, which revealed an 18-year academic fraud involving 3,100 students – nearly half of them athletes – who took no-show classes with little or no faculty oversight.
Thorp stepped down in 2013 after five years as chancellor at the Chapel Hill campus. For two years, the young chancellor – a chemist, inventor and entrepreneur – had been dogged by the athletic and academic scandals that wouldn’t go away. He had fired a football coach. He had wrestled with an NCAA investigation, an internal review of the fake classes and an external probe led by former Gov. Jim Martin. But still, questions persisted.
He said he wanted to return to the classroom and the lab in Chapel Hill, where he had spent his undergraduate days.
Soon, though, Wash. U. came calling. The chancellor there, Mark Wrighton, in the job for 20 years, had gotten to know Thorp through the Association of American Universities, a group of the top research universities in the country. The two men had something else in common. Though years apart, they had both earned chemistry doctorates at Caltech, under the same adviser.
Becoming a provost would be a step down, in a sense, going from the CEO of a university to second-in-command, overseeing academic operations. But Wash. U. was an attractive proposition – a university that had rapidly ascended to the top tier of American higher education. It had an endowment three times that of UNC-CH. And something else that was very attractive: The Washington University athletic teams competed in Division III, with no athletic scholarships.
Working on diversity
I love it. I love it so much. It’s everything I wanted it to be.
Anna McConnell – Wash. U. undergraduate from Chatham County, on her college experience
On a blustery November day, Thorp is booked solid. In the morning, it’s a trip to the expansive medical school campus for talks on boosting commercialization of drug research. In the afternoon, he meets with the Undergraduate Council, a group of students, faculty and administrators, where he reviews plans for the university’s readiness for a grand jury announcement in the Ferguson case. In the evening, it’s the dress rehearsal for the play.
He relishes a brisk walk through the campus, where the ground is covered with a carpet of yellow gingko leaves that had fallen overnight. In the DUC, a bustling gathering spot, students study in small groups around a roaring fire. In the library, they line up for hot chocolate and lattes.
Every day, Thorp walks to his office in the majestic Brookings Hall, built for the 1904 World’s Fair. He and his wife, Patti, rent one of the nearby sprawling homes owned by the university. They are empty nesters, with a daughter in boarding school in Virginia and a son at UNC-CH.
The provost pops into Holmes Lounge, a cozy space, and hugs a student he knows who happens to be from the Triangle. They chat about the amazing sandwiches made at the eatery by a gent named Arthur.
“When I came here, it was instantaneous that this was my school,” said Thorp, who last month was given the title of the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor, named for one of two dozen Nobel laureates affiliated with the school. “I didn’t know what it was like to be in a place like this where so many of the students are students that I have a natural connection with.”
He and other administrators joke, though, that they couldn’t have gotten into Washington University. The average reading and math SAT score, Thorp said, is 1490. In the fall of last year, the university accepted only 15.6 percent of applicants, according to U.S. News.
There’s not a big party scene, though there is a Greek system. Students have all the comforts, and the university often appears on lists of schools with the best dorms and best food. Tuition, room and board is about $62,000 a year.
The university has the feel of a wealthy enclave, and Thorp and other leaders have begun to make changes to boost economic diversity. The New York Times this fall showed Wash. U. to be an outlier, with only 6 percent of students eligible for Pell Grants for lower-income students – even though the university is richly endowed. Thorp said the Pell percentage is up to 8 percent for this year’s freshman class, and the goal is to get to 13 percent for the student body.
“That’s definitely been my thing so far,” he said.
Barbara Schaal, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, said a year and a half ago, 150 professors signed a letter asking the university to improve financial aid and recruit students with low and middle incomes.
Thorp has spoken up on the issue of increasing socioeconomic diversity and underrepresented minorities.
“He’s just been a champion of that, and I think he’s really moved us forward and has a plan to continue moving us,” Schaal said. “We desperately needed that at this point.”
Along with a new graduate dean, he also has worked on the future of Ph.D. education. Adjunct faculty have pushed for unionization at Wash. U., and across the nation, young Ph.D.s are struggling to find tenure-track jobs.
“It’s not a good thing for higher ed, for people who have Ph.D.s, which is our most cherished and treasured experience, to not be satisfied with either the experience or the outcome,” he said. “That’s getting right at the core of what we do.”
Universities need to wrestle with the issue of how many doctoral students they should take, Thorp said, and should help new Ph.D.s find alternative careers in industry.
A different athletic scene
You can’t name the quarterback of the football team.
If there’s someone tailgating in the b-school parking lot, you know it’s the away team.
– from “30 Signs You’re a Wash. U. Student,” in Student Life, the campus newspaper
Aside from recruiting a new law dean, Thorp’s to-do list the first year included finding a new athletic director. He did it with a committee of faculty, staff and students. The finalists arrived in St. Louis for interviews.
“People came here on Southwest Airlines, or they drove,” Thorp said, thinking back to his high-profile recruitment of Bubba Cunningham at UNC-CH. “It’s very different from the last one I did.”
He hired Josh Whitman from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who as a student was a tight end at Illinois, played in the NFL and later earned a law degree. Whitman oversees 17 sports teams in a league where the opponents include the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and Emory.
The athletic director reports to the dean of students, three administrative layers down from the chancellor. The football stadium seats about 4,000. Basketball is big, with the Bears having claimed five women’s championships and two men’s titles.
Games are typically played as doubleheaders, men’s and women’s teams competing at the same venue.
“But there’s no TV timeouts, so the game only lasts about an hour and 35 minutes or something like that,” Thorp said. “You go over, and it’s kind of a community event.”
The experience is fun, Thorp said. The headaches associated with big-money intercollegiate athletics are absent.
In the past, he has said that he was too trusting at UNC-CH, that he was not prepared for the all-consuming nature of Division I athletics.
“My heart goes out to everybody trying to do big-time sports,” he said. “It’s not easy. I’m relieved not to be part of it. It’s just really hard to have all these universities that are this excellent trying to do something that people have such strong opinions and expectations about, and where the stakes are just so unbelievably high.”
James Moeser, Thorp’s predecessor at UNC-CH, advocated for Thorp to get the chancellor’s job and thought he was the right person. At that point, athletics did not appear to be a problem at Chapel Hill, though.
“The one issue that I think he was ... not prepared to deal with was that one, the athletic one,” Moeser said. “He had no experience.”
Then again, Moeser, who had plenty of athletics experience at Nebraska, didn’t detect trouble in African and Afro-American Studies, where the bogus classes were hatched. While Moeser asked questions following a 2006 scandal at Auburn University, he said, “I guess I didn’t ask, ‘Should I believe the answers I got?’ I think we were all victims of, as somebody said in the Faculty Council, we trusted that systems were in place.”
Bruce Cairns, chairman of the UNC-CH faculty, said he thinks of Thorp as a native son who wanted to do the right thing for his university. And though the scandal was rough on him and his family, Thorp stayed nine months after he announced his departure from the chancellor’s job. Most of the reforms made in that period, Cairns said, are intact.
“We’re still in the midst of the storm, and it’s harder to see that,” he said. “Over time, it will become clearer to people that he laid the foundation.”
Others, looking back, see failure. “Holden didn’t have the leadership skills to pull the U out of this while the hurricane was still a Cat 1,” said Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist who blew the whistle about the paper class scheme and has since sued the university.
Wrighton, the Wash. U. chancellor, said the provost search committee inquired about what happened at UNC-CH. In the end, he said, everyone was satisfied that Thorp was an academic leader with integrity who “did the very best he could.”
“I have no regrets at all and no lingering doubts of any kind,” Wrighton added. “I knew when we recruited him that we had a really good chance of having an outstanding new addition to our leadership team. Every thought I had about his ability was probably an underestimation of what he can do.”
Thorp calmly helped guide the search for a new law dean at a time when the law school had jitters about plummeting enrollment in legal education nationally, said Howard Cayne, a trustee and Wash. U. law graduate.
“He can make tough decisions under a lot of pressure,” Cayne said of Thorp. “I know he had to do that at UNC.”
So maybe, in that way, the Chapel Hill saga helped prepare Holden Thorp for his new dream job.
The bass-playing provost is perfectly content in the co-pilot’s seat, surveying the vast academic landscape before him. He is 800 miles away from an NCAA investigation, an accrediting commission’s questions and talk of taking light blue banners down.
“I work on the things that I really, really care about that relate to education. I have one boss, which is a lot fewer than I had at North Carolina.”