The resignation of UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp is drawing a variety of reactions from those on-campus and off. Thorp has been at the helm for four years. During the last two, he faced growing criticism for how he has handled a series of scandals in the football program and the African and Afro-American studies department. And then last week, the school’s top fundraiser abruptly resigned after being confronted with a number of personal trips he took at university expense. While Thorp’s legacy as Chancellor will include these events, it will also show that he successfully led the school through a funding crisis and raised the University’s profile as a research university. Dave DeWitt reports.
Dave DeWitt: When Holden Thorp became the tenth chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008, he was already a renowned chemist who had published 130 scholarly articles, started a successful pharmaceutical company, and led a resurgence at the Morehead Planetarium. But none of the skills he acquired in those roles - or his natural abilities - could have prepared him for the turbulent ride he was in for. That tenure ended on Monday, as Thorp announced his resignation.
In an interview with WUNC, he explained his reasoning.
Holden Thorp: We’ve uncovered a lot of problems over the last two years and it’s been very, very difficult and the toll that it has taken on me and my team has been significant. And I think setting a time by which we’re going to get these things resolved is a positive thing.
That long list of problems began in the spring of 2010 with a tweet. It came from football player Marvin Austin, who decided to share his enthusiasm for a party he was attending in Miami’s South Beach. That party was being thrown by an agent. That led to questions from the NCAA, then to suspensions, then the resignation of a UNC assistant coach, and questions about a tutor. It eventually culminated in the firing of football coach Butch Davis a year later. Thorp either shouldn’t have fired Davis, or didn’t fire him quickly enough – depending on who you ask. Thorp clearly regrets how he handled it.
Thorp: Sure I wish I’d made some of the decisions sooner and I’d wish I’d gotten information sooner. Once things come out and they’re bad, you always think that.
Carolina’s football program ended up on NCAA probation. But that was hardly the end of the scandals, or the problems with academic integrity. It was soon discovered that the chair of the African and Afro-American studies department spent several years holding no-show classes and bogus independent study courses, as well as changing grades. Those classes involved a significant number of athletes. And then, finally, Matt Kupec, the schools top fundraiser, was caught using university money to take personal trips with Tami Hansbrough, the mother of one of Carolina’s most heralded basketball players. She was also a fundraiser at Carolina, hired into a job funded by Kupec’s office. Last Friday, the UNC Board of Governors spent an hour grilling Thorp behind closed doors. But he came out of that with their support, says system president Tom Ross.
Tom Ross: To my knowledge, no one on our board, his board, nor I asked him to take this step, it was a decision he reached on his own.
That decision was to resign on Sunday. And when word got out Monday morning, many students, like senior Travis Creighton, found out via twitter
Travis Creighton: I think people really like Chancellor Thorp. They think he’s really done a great job handling the leadership of this university. I don’t think anyone’s doubted his credentials or his reactions. The sense I get from talking other people I’ve talked to today is that he’s the scapegoat in all this. It really was not his fault and I think we’re going to be sad to see him go across this campus.
Thorp: Nobody asked me to step down, so I don’t feel like a scapegoat.
Again, Holden Thorp.
Thorp: I feel like I’ve done a great job straightening out a lot of the problems that have come up the last couple of years.
He’s not alone in his assessment. While some donors have expressed disagreement with his decisions, especially the firing of football coach Butch Davis, the faculty at UNC has been supportive. Jan Boxill is the chair of the faculty. She says she hopes Thorp’s legacy includes the efforts he made to keep UNC affordable and to protect academic excellence in the face of the most severe state budget cuts in the school’s history.
Jan Boxill: You know he’s done so much to keep this university not just afloat but develop more in the time with all the serious budget cuts.
Boxill was one of the steady stream of people who talked to Thorp on Monday morning, trying to get him to reconsider his resignation. Some think he may yet be swayed, but on Monday he sounded like a person looking forward to spending more time with his family and rekindling his life as a member of the faculty.
Thorp: Right now the plan is for me to go back to chemistry and get a research identity going again and get ready to teach again and I’m very, very excited about doing that.
When Holden Thorp hands the reigns of UNC-Chapel Hill to his replacement next summer, he will be 48 years old. Most ex-chancellors tend to be older, because it took longer to get there, and they stayed for a few more years. So depending on how long it takes him to recapture his “research identity” it’s likely that Thorp will have a long, successful post-chancellor career at his alma mater.