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Promise, Scandal, And Resolution: The Thorp Era At UNC

Holden Thorp
UNC-Chapel Hill

It’s commencement weekend across North Carolina. Thousands of college students will get their degrees and begin their professional lives. This year, they’re not the only ones who will get a fresh start. After five years as the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Holden Thorp is leaving to become the provost at Washington University in Saint Louis.

On Thorp’s very first official day as chancellor, July 1 2008, he visited with student leaders at the Campus Y. Just 43-years old, Thorp was something new and different - a jazz-playing, convertible-driving young chemist. An alumnus who grew up in Fayetteville; someone who could appreciate Carolina’s past and future.

“It’s impossible for it not to strike you,” Thorp said on that day. “You walk in and here’s William Davie and Frank Graham on the wall. It’s inspiring. I think Carolina’s on a roll. I just feel fortunate that I get to be the person that gets to do this right now. It’s the perfect moment for us.”

Carolina wasn’t exactly a perfect place when Thorp took over. Significant budget cuts were just beginning, town-gown relations weren’t great, and the plight of housekeepers on campus was a black eye. But the school was emerging from a campus building boom and the future looked bright. Even Thorp’s first experience with big-time college sports was a positive one, as the Tar Heels men’s basketball team won the 2009 National Championship. 

In his first two years, Thorp dealt with normal chancellor problems - mild student protests and challenging budget cuts. He was a positive force, and made those around him feel pride about being at the University. He handed out degrees and played some gigs around town with his band, Equinox.

And then, at three in the morning on May 31st, 2010, football player Marvin Austin tweeted about the gifts he was receiving at a party in Miami. That led to an investigation into improper benefits paid to athletes, and the discovery that assistant coach John Blake was working for an agent, and suddenly Thorp was trying to stay in front of a growing scandal at a hastily called press conference.

“To everyone who loves this university, I’m sorry about what I have to tell you,” Thorp told the media. “During the course of the joint investigation by the NCAA and the University into possible agent violations we learned of a situation that includes possible academic misconduct involving a former academic tutor and student-athletes on the football team.”

It became clear, to Thorp and others, that this wasn’t simply a couple of football players making some bad choices.

“We realized that the penalties against the student athletes and Coach Blake were going to be major violations and truly, truly significant,” he says, looking back. “The scope of which we had never really seen before.”

At first, Thorp stood by both his athletic director, Dick Baddour, and football coach, Butch Davis. But a few months later, as the NCAA investigation intensified, Thorp fired Davis. And Baddour would retire soon after.

The University self-imposed sanctions on its football program, and the NCAA added to them. Thorp found himself fighting with the media, which was clamoring for what it deemed to be public records. And more than a few alumni were furious that Thorp moved too quickly – or not quickly enough.

But that was hardly the end. Further investigation revealed even bigger problems in the African and Afro-American studies department. Academic fraud, on a large scale: Grades were changed, and classes did not meet.

“That was probably the lowest point,” Thorp remembers. “When I realized that there were significant numbers of classes that were questionable and how unprofessional that was.”

On top of that, the school’s top fundraiser resigned abruptly after he was caught using university money to take personal trips with the mother of one of Carolina’s most heralded basketball players.

“He had to learn on the job how to handle and how to deal with these situations that, quite frankly, I don’t think any chancellor at North Carolina has ever had to deal with,” says Roger Perry, the chair of the Board of Trustees when Thorp was hired.

Thorp responded by asking former governor Jim Martin to lead an independent investigation of the entire mess. That investigation revealed nothing new, and the University began the process of rebuilding its academic and athletic reputation and policies.

Most have been well-received. But one involved sending administrators around to classrooms across campus, to make sure they were, indeed, meeting. It’s a policy that has drawn some faculty complaints.

And then four-and-a-half years after taking over with such high hopes, Thorp abruptly announced he was resigning. Faculty and students took the news hard.

“I think people really like Chancellor Thorp,” said student Travis Creighton when the announcement was made. “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.”

Students and faculty held a rally to try to get Thorp to change his mind. That didn’t happen.

And then, in January of this year, a group of five current and former UNC students - including one former administrator - filed a federal complaint against the University for its handling of sexual assault cases.

Thorp again initiated reforms, hiring a consultant and some new administrators to try to revamp some outdated policies. Around the same time, Thorp announced he was going to become the provost at private Washington University in Saint Louis, a school that doesn’t give athletic scholarships.

“Let me tell you something: having gone through what he’s gone through, he’s probably as tough and seasoned and as qualified a person to be chancellor as there’s ever been – now,” says Perry.

Thorp’s tenure will likely be judged by the decisions he made in the midst of the athletic and academic scandals. But he also quietly improved relations between the University and the town of Chapel Hill, as well as with housekeeping and grounds employees.

Carolina also moved into the top ten universities in attracting federal R&D research funding. Applications for admission are up 43 percent, and fundraising has remained strong.

Thorp believes the University is better off today than it was five years ago.

“We’ve got better policies for sexual assault,” he says. “We’ve got better policies for monitoring what goes on in the classroom. And we’ve got a compliance philosophy in athletics which is much more realistic in terms of the challenges that come with succeeding in college sports.”

Thorp’s last day at Carolina is June 30th. The next day, Carol Folt from Dartmouth will occupy the chancellor’s office in South Building, and maybe even make her way over to the Campus Y to talk to some students. She probably won’t be as wide-eyed as her predecessor, but it’s likely she will also think this is the perfect time to be at Carolina.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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