A Q&A with UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp
May. 04, 2013 @ 03:51 PM

The past two-plus years have been tumultuous for Holden Thorp and his beloved Carolina.

Athletic and academic scandals dogged the second half of his tenure as chancellor at UNC, sullying the reputation of the state’s flagship school.

More recently, the school found itself under federal investigation for its handling of rape allegations.

In September, Thorp, 48, announced he would step down to return to the faculty of UNC. But then came word that he would leave his alma mater after five years to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis.

Carol Folt, interim president at Dartmouth, replaces Thorp on July 1.

Last week, Thorp sat down with The Herald-Sun’s Greg Childress and spoke candidly about the good and the bad, as well as the difficulty of juggling academics and big-time athletics at one of the nation’s top public universities.

Here are his answers to our questions:

HS: As the time for you to leave UNC draws closer, how tough is it to get your mind around the fact that your will no longer be working at Carolina?

Thorp: It’s a big change. I’ve been here for most of the last 31 years because I came here in 1982 as a freshman. So it’s a big change to leave here and I’m really going to miss the people here but I feel good about the things that we were able to do for Carolina in all of the different roles that I have had.

Our son is going to be coming here in the fall so we’ll be back to visit him. I’m really looking forward to that, having a little more time when I come back to be with the friends I had before my life changed.

HS: How tough a decision was it to decide to take the job at Washington University in St. Louis?

Thorp: It wasn’t tough at all to make that decision because I had already decided I was going to step down from being chancellor. What I had hoped was that by doing that, making that decision in September, that I gave the campus the opportunity and time to recruit a great new chancellor for them and I couldn’t be more excited than to have Carol Folt coming here to be the chancellor.

And I also was thinking that I would find something interesting to do and being the provost at Washington University, I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome than that.

The chancellor there Mark Wrighton is somebody I’ve known my whole career. I’m really excited about working with him, as excited as I’ve been working with anybody.

I’ve been telling people that going to work for Mark Wrighton is exciting in the same way working for Erskine Bowles [the former UNC system president] was when I came into this job.

Washington University is a great school academically, but there’s still interesting challenges there to work on in terms of new things that they can do in taking care of the extraordinary excellence they have built up, especially the last 30 years or so.

So, it’s difficult to leave so many friends and go to a place where I don’t know many people, but it’s also exciting and I think a good change for Pattie [wife] and me at this point in our lives.

HS: What do you consider to be you greatest accomplishment at UNC?

Thorp: I think I did a good job of connecting with the people who work here, the faculty and the staff and the people who go to school here, and did a lot to make things better for them. We made, and I think you’ve written about this, excellent progress on some of the issues we’ve had in housekeeping.

We did a great job of changing the relationship between the university and local government and we held morale together through the budget crisis and then the other problems that we had.

In September, when the campus had the rally for me and the over the last few weeks the Employee Forum made me a lifetime honorary delegate and the Faculty Council passed a resolution making me Kenan Professor Emeritus, those things mean a lot to me because the people of this university are the thing that I’m the most passionate about.

There are plenty of great things to point to that have happened, like we moved into the Top 10 in research and undergraduate applications soared and the hospital has gotten bigger and stronger and we’ve done surprisingly well with faculty retention considering how tough the economy has been.

I think all of those happened because the people of the university are so committed to the work that they do here and I’ve just tried my best to support that.

HS: What about your greatest disappointment?

Thorp: I’m sorry I wasn’t able to close Horace Williams Airport. I tried, but so did every other chancellor who has worked here. It’s ridiculous that we have that airport. The political people who have been forcing us to keep it open, I’m not a big fan of the way they’ve done that.

The private pilots who use it do all kinds of different things to keep us from closing it. I’m proud we’ve moved our air operation to Raleigh-Durham (airport). I think that’s a good thing for them and our flights have gone up since we’ve moved.

That real estate is important to the university and using it as an airport is a misuse of state resources.

I hate leaving office with that airport still open, but maybe [Chancellor-elect] Carol Folt will be the one who comes up with the magic formula to get it closed.

HS: The last two or three years have been extremely tough on the university and on you personally. In hindsight, what would you have done differently to change the outcome?

Thorp: I’m not sure the outcome would have changed too significantly. We had somebody in the African and Afro American Studies Department who was teaching classes improperly for 14 years and finding that is a major thing to deal with, and we had our first major [NCAA] infractions case in 50 years.

These are sort of momentous things that happened and I happened to be the one here when they went down. So, I think finding those things was going to be traumatic for the university no matter how it was handled.

But I do think I could have done a number of things differently, get information faster, act faster. The problem that you have in a bureaucratic organization like ours is that it’s very hard to get the various constituencies lined up to take action as quickly as you would like.

And I think the other thing is that, and I’m grateful for this part, we had all become, and I was part of this as well, to believe this narrative that this was a place where these kinds of things couldn’t happen. I think one good thing that has come from all of this is that, now, I don’t think people will ever lapse back in to that. I certainly hope we don’t.

College sports is challenging and we need to vigilant and remember that if we’re going to compete at the level that we want to compete, that we have to be vigilant about compliance and academic support and even separate from that, we have to operate the university very effectively and efficiently and we’ve put a lot of good policies in place on the academic side to protect us from that.

So, I think one good thing that’s emerged from all of that is, I believe the people who are responsible for these things in the future will be careful and vigilant and realize that these are the kinds of things they have to worry about here just like at all the other schools.

HS: In recent days you have talked much about returning the responsibility for athletics to athletic directors. Could you talk about that?

Thorp: I think a lot of the assumptions we’ve made about college sports need to be examined. This assumption that said somehow presidents and chancellors would be able to resolve a lot of these problems, I think that was an unrealistic idea, and what it ended up doing was to give college athletics even more influence than it had.

There’s this statement out there that the presidents and chancellors shouldn’t trust the athletic director and should be kind of the co-athletic director. Well, why not be the co-dean of medicine or the co-dean of arts and sciences?  We don’t afford that special status to anybody else.

I think the people who proposed that were thinking that it would give athletics less influence, but in fact, the unintended consequence of that was it made it even more influential because the president is constantly hearing this thing that says you’re responsible for all of these things that happen in athletics and you shouldn’t trust the athletic director so you put all of this extra time and effort into that instead of town politics, the hospital, the endowment or raising money and all of these other things we’re supposed to be working on.

I just think at this point we have a number of things in college athletics that clearly aren’t working and that ought to be on the list of things we examine, whether we’ve got the governance model correct.

HS: What advice have you given Chancellor-elect Carol Folt about juggling all of the demands placed on a UNC chancellor?

Thorp: I’ve told her that sports are an incredible part of her job. When I came into office, we hadn’t had an NCAA violation in a long time. We won a national basketball championship my first year. We won a field hockey and women’s soccer championship. I thought that [athletics] was the least of my worries.

I was focused on building our Alert Carolina system and on town politics. Those were the things that had been high on my list, and creating a collaborative relationship with General Administration, which I think we did a good job.

So, I told her sports were important and that she has a great athletic director and needs to stay close to him.

I told her that the chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill is in many ways the best public job in North Carolina. There are a lot of people who believe that, and that comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot of scrutiny, and I think she is well aware of that as well.

As I said in September, my hope was that by making my announcement when I did, it would give the campus the opportunity to attract someone with extensive administrative experience, which she has, from a peer institution, which I’d say Dartmouth is in terms of the many objectives we have, is as strong or stronger than Carolina, and that is a great thing to bring somebody here who has that kind of ambition and those kinds of high standards.

Yes, I think Carol is up to the task in every respect. The difficult decision that I made in September couldn’t have paid off more than for us to attract her and for me to get to go to Washington University. It’s a great thing all around.

HS:  What will Holden Thorp’s legacy at UNC be?

Thorp: I hope that it is that I cared a lot about the people who worked here and did everything I could to help them when it was possible, and I think if you asked Jackie Overton (chairwoman of the UNC Employee Forum), Jan Boxill (chairwoman of the faculty) and student body presidents, that they would say that that was true.