At an Association of American Universities gathering of presidents and chancellors some years back, one of the leaders commented, “Rest assured that while we are here, someone on each of our campuses is doing something they shouldn’t be doing, and when we find out about it, we’re going to be responsible for cleaning it up.”
A chancellor has to be good with a mop and a bucket. The Thorps know that all too well. Holden ’86 and Patti, a UNC-Greensboro alumna, have worked together and separately to strengthen the University, benefit UNC Hospitals and enrich the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Publicly, Holden has had to steer the flagship University through media storms and investigations. Privately, he has had to admonish colleagues who let him down and make phone calls every parent dreads receiving. He has stepped in to move stalled town-gown projects forward and quietly inspired alumni to fill funding gaps.
UNC hired Holden away from N.C. State in 1993 to teach chemistry. He was appointed director of the Morehead Planetarium in 2001, revitalizing it into a more broadly-based science center before he returned to teaching as chair of the chemistry department. In 2007, he became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, then Carolina’s 10th chancellor the following year.
As chancellor, Holden created a richly diverse cabinet; he instituted new systems for athletics and academics; and he inspired strikingly successful fundraising despite the worst recession in generations. He took satisfaction in improving town-gown relations, calming the contentious Carolina North negotiations to achieve a development agreement, proposing a solution when the 123 West Franklin project nearly derailed before a skittish town council, and bringing Self-Help to Northside to ameliorate the University’s impact on that historically black neighborhood.
Patti has a master’s degree in theater management from Yale, but if ever there was an honorary Carolina alumna, it is she. Patti has followed her passion and compassion as a strong advocate for the arts in the community and on campus in venues large and small. She chairs the Friends of PlayMakers Advisory Council and belongs to UNC’s Arts Innovation Committee. Invited to lend her name as honorary chair of the Cow Parade fundraiser for UNC Children’s Hospital, she jumped in and worked as hard as any of the volunteers, talking up the experience and herding supporters to the culminating auction.
Patti brought together supporters from across campus to participate in Habitat for Humanity’s Build-A-Block initiative, which completed an unprecedented 10 homes in one year for UNC employees. She rallies support for book drives and blood drives and has a leadership role in the Jupiter Ball, which raises money for science education in public schools.
Together the Thorps never got too absorbed in the challenges to make the journey fun. Holden made music on campus whenever he could. They were regulars at the GAA’s Camp Blue Heaven for many years. Patti has been seen jumping up and down on the floor of the Smith Center; son John painted himself and joined the students in the risers a bit prematurely — he will be among them for real next fall; and daughter Emma was named the women’s basketball team’s number one fan. The family regularly attended UNC’s Olympic sports contests, especially the softball games in their backyard.
Holden served on the GAA Board of Directors as a faculty member, and he earned our Distinguished Young Alumni Award before he chaired the chemistry department. Among the proudest moments of his tenure was Carolina’s entry into the top 10 nationally in university research funding.
And lest we forget, as chancellor he co-wrote a book on innovation, and last fall he co-taught a class on innovation.
Come July 1, Holden and Patti will begin a new chapter at Washington University, where Holden will be provost — the one position, notes his admiring colleague Joe Templeton, that he bypassed in his career. And Joe has a prediction: “He’s going to be a tremendous national thought leader in higher education over the next decade.”
Holden’s parents, Herbert ’54 (’56 LLB) and Bo ’56, met at Carolina. His brother Clay ’90 kids him that he was tapped into the Order of the Golden Fleece as an undergraduate, while Holden had to wait to be tapped as an honorary. And over the years Holden and Patti built another close family. They depart for St. Louis with the adoration of Carolina students, faculty and staff to whom they listened, loved and led.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May.