On the day Holden Thorp ’86 announced he would leave the chancellorship to someone else next spring, and again on the day after, there was a strong sentiment on the campus that he should reconsider. The chair of the trustees, the Faculty Executive Committee, a general meeting of the faculty, the groups that represent employees on the campus and retired faculty, and his predecessor were among those who said they wanted his leadership to continue.
Off the campus, the reaction was decidedly more mixed. A forum for Carolina football fans, many of them still angry he fired coach Butch Davis, whooped it up. Comments on social media ran the gamut.
“There’s a strong move among some of the trustees to get Holden to try to reconsider,” said former Chancellor James Moeser. “The final paragraph might not have been written in this story. In fact, I hope it hasn’t.”
But Thorp said it had. He said that last Friday night, after a meeting in which the UNC System Board of Governors questioned him about the unsettling events of the last two years, “was my first time to sort of catch my breath and think about things and spend time with my wife.”
“And we thought about everything that we’d been through and all the things that we still had to do, with the various initiatives that are under way to correct some of the problems that we have at the University. … And we just decided to have nine months to focus on that and to give the University a period of time to find a new chancellor.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, faculty members filled a 250-seat auditorium in what amounted to a sophisticated pep rally for Thorp’s return. He spoke briefly to what veteran Faculty Secretary Joe Ferrell ’60 believed was the largest faculty meeting since the Kent State riots in 1970.
“The support you’ve shown to me and to Patti and to each other has been extraordinary, and one of the most moving experiences of my life,” Thorp said. “Nobody asked me to make the announcement I made yesterday.
“It’s been a tumultuous two years for me and for the University, and it’s been a tumultuous time for my family. This is the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
He said there are “a lot of things” he would have done differently, citing “getting information sooner” and “taking action sooner.”
“I appreciate your outpouring of support. I am so appreciative of the resolution that you will consider, but right now my plan is to sit out there with you.” With a laugh that sounded both exhausted and relieved, he added, “It looks really good.”
Even as he reflected on his decision, more headlines raised more eyebrows. The News & Observer of Raleigh — which has doggedly investigated scandals in the football program and an academic department and more recently pressed UNC on questionable travel expenses of the University’s top fundraising officer — reported Tuesday that Thorp had been along on some trips taken by Vice Chancellor Matt Kupec ’80 and another development officer, Tami Hansbrough.
While some of the trips taken by the development officers at UNC expense may not have been UNC business, Thorp said the ones on which he traveled were business. There was no indication to the contrary in the initial report.
The loudest outcry for reconsideration came from the faculty, and faculty Chair Jan Boxill said she thought some were influenced by the firing and subsequent reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan last summer following a faculty backlash.
“I can tell you he has tremendous, tremendous backing by the faculty,” Boxill said. “I’ve gotten a slew of emails from faculty who would like to try to convince him not to” step down, she said.
“But I empathize, and I realize there’s only so much one person can take on.”
Monday’s statement from 14 members of the faculty Executive Committee had the tone of lament over the scandals that have shaken the University but also of frustration that the chancellor could not have foreseen them.
“We have worked closely with Chancellor Thorp for many months as he has dealt with the unfolding academic scandal emerging from the investigation into UNC athletics, and we have found the chancellor to be thoughtful, engaged with the faculty and its elected leadership, receptive and open, and highly responsive to faculty concerns about protecting the integrity of the university’s academic mission,” the statement read. “In particular, Chancellor Thorp without hesitation supported the efforts of our own faculty subcommittee to dig deeper into the problems that may have contributed to the academic scandal. Thus, our own experience working with Chancellor Thorp has been entirely positive.
“On behalf of the faculty, the Faculty Executive Committee respectfully requests that Chancellor Thorp reconsider his decision to resign.”
The general faculty present at the Tuesday meeting approved a resolution calling for Thorp to reconsider and for UNC System President Thomas Ross ’75 (JD) to decline his resignation. A single “no” was heard. Then representatives of the Employee Forum and the retired faculty group read similar resolutions.
Joe Templeton hired Thorp away from N.C. State University to the Carolina chemistry faculty, was chair of the UNC faculty for the first year of Thorp’s chancellorship and was on the search committee that chose him. On Monday he said, “I’ll get past it, but I have a sort of overwhelming sadness today,” he said.
“I thought he’d be stronger coming out of the Board of Governors’ meeting than going in.”
On the issue of Thorp’s firing of Davis just as the 2011 season began, Templeton said, “I felt like the community outside the campus was divided into two camps — either he shouldn’t have fired him or he did it at the wrong time — and the group that thought he did it the right way was either small or non-vocal. The on-campus support I think has always been staunch and unquestionable.”
Templeton, now a Distinguished Professor of chemistry, acknowledged the irony in what he thought was an important part of Thorp’s legacy. “I think it’ll be for confronting the problems that needed to be addressed,” as opposed to the sentiment that he didn’t do enough.
Jay Smith, professor and associate chair of the history department, has criticized Thorp’s handling of academic fraud in the department of African and Afro-American studies and has spoken out against the embrace of big-time athletics. “I was stunned by it. I was just stunned. I thought in the wake of the Board of Governors’ publicly approving [a vote of confidence in Thorp] late last week. … I thought things were looking up for him.”
Smith said the events surrounding the development officers, both of whom have resigned, may have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Asked what particular qualities Thorp’s successor should bring to the job, Smith said: “That’s one of the tragedies of this. You would hope the next chancellor would have a whole lot of Holden Thorp’s qualities.”
At the Tuesday meeting, faculty members spoke of his special value to the science community and his entrepreneurship initiative, his integrity and his inspiration to young teachers and researchers.
“He has never bent on his commitment to academic integrity,” said Michael Gerhardt of the law school. “No one who’s chancellor could be more receptive to faculty input.”
Thorp tried Monday to emphasize the positives of his four years as chancellor in a statement that was repeated by several of the people interviewed.
“Together, we have accomplished so much,” it read. “Student applications are up by 24 percent. Our faculty has made us a top 10 university in research funding. We have made excellent progress with faculty retentions. More alumni and friends made gifts to the University last year than ever before. We have pulled the campus through the financial crisis, emerging as a stronger institution. And we have launched a campuswide initiative to define our vision of the 21st century public research university.”
“Especially for those of us who work in admissions and financial aid, he’s been sort of a giant,” said Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “He’s really led us very strongly and made very clear the University’s commitment to access and affordability.
“One of the most important things he’s done is to look at all of us and tell us to try to hold down costs. He just wanted us to be good stewards so that we could hold down costs for students, and lots of universities have copied that. He’s also made it clear that the university is fully committed to enrolling students regardless of their ability to pay.”
Moeser highlighted UNC’s progress under Thorp said that media coverage had been slanted toward the negative, adding: “It’s also true that things like this go on all the time. It’s just a perfect storm of these things. Most of these things are out of the control of the chancellor, but the chancellor is responsible for everything. It does come to roost on his desk.”
Per UNC System policy, Thorp will receive one year of research leave at his most recent salary; then, as a tenured faculty member his new salary will start at the greater of either 60 percent of his administrative salary or pay commensurate with the salaries of faculty in comparable positions. He is a Kenan professor of chemistry and was a popular teacher among undergraduates.
Thorp told Ross that he would be willing to stay on past June 30, 2013, if the transition to his successor is not complete.