Thorp to become provost at Washington University

Feb. 18, 2013 @ 06:08 PM

Citing an opportunity to return to teaching and research, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp on Monday confirmed that he will leave his beloved UNC in June to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis.

The announcement by Thorp, 48, who has been chancellor at UNC for five years, the last two of which have been marred by athletic and academic scandals, was a surprise. Thorp had been expected to return to the faculty at his alma mater this summer.

“This exciting new opportunity represents the best of both worlds,” Thorp said in a formal notice to the campus Monday. “My new positions will enable me to return to my passions of teaching and research while, at the same time, as the chief academic officer, will allow me to continue many of the administrative duties that I enjoyed as chancellor.”

Thorp also addressed the academic and athletic scandals that have enveloped the university the past two years, calling them the most difficult “issues to come before the university in decades.”

For the past two years, Thorp's been affected by a sprawling scandal that started with improper benefits for football players and spread to academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies Department.

“We have met those challenges head on and put much-needed reform in place.” It’s been painful, but we’ve become a better university as a result.”

Thorp was in St. Louis Monday and could not be immediately reached for comment.

At Washington University, a prestigious private university with an enrollment of about 14,000, about the size of Duke University, Thorp will become the top academic officer and hold an endowed professorship in the departments of chemistry and medicine.

Ranked 14th on U.S. News &World Report’s list of national universities, Washington University counts nearly two dozen Nobel Prize winners among its faculty and alumni.

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that Thorp’s record as an academic, researcher and administrator, made him an attractive candidate for the post.

“He is among the most respected educators in higher education,” Wrighton said. “In Holden [Thorp], we have a person who is still young in his career chronologically and Washington University is fortunate to have him as it has much to do in a short period of time.”

Thorp will replace Edward Macias, who held the provost and executive vice chancellor post for 25 years.

Jan Boxill, chairwoman of UNC’s Faculty Senate Council, said she had looked forward to having Thorp on campus next year for counsel as she continued to work on projects started under his leadership, but understands his desire to leave.

“But the more I thought about it, this is an incredible opportunity for him,” Boxill said.

She said Thorp has been supportive of students and faculty and taken the university to great heights even as the university found itself ensnared in time-consuming athletics and academic scandals.

Boxill cited UNC’s breaking into the Top 10 in federal research and development funding, its substantial increase in undergraduate admissions applications and its place at the forefront of national debates about college affordability and innovation and entrepreneurship as major accomplishments under Thorp.

“I think he’s left us in a place where we can move forward,” Boxill said.

Will Leimenstoll, UNC’s student body president and ex officio member of the UNC Board of Trustees, agreed with Boxill that Thorp’s tenure has been marked by impressive accomplishments.

But he said he believes the past two years, dealing with scandal, have taken their toll.

“I feel he’s done his absolutely best in the face of tremendous adversity,” Leimenstoll said.

Meanwhile, UNC Board of Trustee Chairman Wade Hargrove said Thorp’s leadership will be missed.

“Washington University’s gain is a clear loss for Carolina,” Hargrove said. “We, the Board of Trustees, hold Holden in the highest regard. He’s provided exemplary leadership at a critical time,” Hargrove said. “The reality is that he’s leaving Carolina in a much stronger position than when he became chancellor five years ago.”

Hargrove said he spoke with Thorp about the decision Sunday, and believes Washington University will be a good fit.

“His initial plan was to return to teaching and research at Carolina, but then he started receiving inquiries from other universities and this particular one interested him,” Hargrove said. “I do think it’s a wonderful opportunity for Holden. We’re very sad to see him leave the Carolina family.”

Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, called Thorp a great teacher, scientist, leader and friend.

“Holden Thorp has strengthened Carolina in many ways, and in many roles, during his time here,” Gil said in an email. “We will miss him and [wife] Patti [Thorp] in Chapel Hill, but we wish them the very best for the next exciting chapter in their lives.”

UNC system President Tom Ross also wished Thorp and his family well.

“This is a wonderful career opportunity for Chancellor Thorp.  North Carolina and the University are losing a remarkably talented scientist and teacher, as well as a loyal leader,” Ross said. 

The news of Thorp’s departure was disappointing to Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, who said he and Thorp had one of the best working relationships between a mayor and chancellor in probably a generation.

“He and his wife are a part of so many wonderful things in our community,” Kleinschmidt said.

Still, Kleinschmidt said he is happy for Thorp, who will get a chance to work in one of the nation’s premiere research institutes.

“I think he’s really going to enjoy the change,” Kleinschmidt said. “I wish him the best.”

A search committee hopes to have a new chancellor in place by June 30.

UNC is also in the hunt for a new provost to replace Bruce Carney, who is stepping down to return to teaching and a new vice chancellor for university advancement after last fall’s resignation of Matt Kupec over questionable travel expenses.