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Q and A With Holden Thorp

Holden Thorp ’86, who’s been in South Building for six years — counting one as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences — talked with the Carolina Alumni Review’s senior associate editor, David Brown ’75, about his decision to leave Chapel Hill. “Wash U” rolls off his tongue easily. He received a lot of calls from people with jobs to offer; he wants to do some teaching after settling in to the provost job; and he’s had enough of big-time athletics for a while.

Something happened since the day in September when you told faculty members how excited you were to be going back to the classroom at Carolina.

I started to get contacted about various things, and most of them were not things I was interested in — other jobs that were really similar to this one, or things outside of higher education — but this was just one that, when it came through, I thought, OK, Mark Wrighton, I’ve known him for 25 years, Wash U is a great university that has a lot of characteristics that I admire, and being a provost was — really, of the administration jobs that I could imagine doing — the one that I would be most interested in doing.

So I went and talked to the search committee, and once you get on the plane and go talk to the search committee, then if you’re offered the job and you don’t have a competing one you’re probably going to take it.

But you had a job here.

I had one here as a faculty member, yeah, but I just decided this was a great opportunity, and a chance for me and Patti to go somewhere and do something different, and she and I went to St. Louis together, and they did a good job recruiting her. So we decided to do this, and I think given the reaction there and here, we’re even more certain now that it was the right decision.

Talk about your relationship with the chancellor.

Well, he got his Ph.D. in the same lab I did, 14 years earlier, and he was a very well-known scientist when he was running his lab, and then he became provost at MIT at a very young age, and I was very aware of that, and he went to Wash U at a similar age to when I became chancellor here — he was 45. So he’s someone who’s had a pretty similar career to mine in a lot of ways.

You’re being kind of nonchalant about leaving here and about leaving Chapel Hill.

I don’t feel nonchalant about it, but I feel certainly this is the right thing to do.

There are usually pushes and pulls. Are there pushes here?

Not really. I think I had a great setup to go back to chemistry, and medicine wanted me to join the department of medicine and be part of the McAllister Heart Institute, and those were all great things that would have been fun, and I could have focused on my business stuff and the entrepreneurship things here. I just felt like this was an opportunity to use what I’ve learned the last six years being in South Building in a different place, and I think if I stayed here … I’d need to stay far away from the administration and let the next chancellor do her job. So I wouldn’t be using a lot of what I’d learned the last six years. And I just felt like this role at Wash U, which is more academic across the board — I could use all of the experiences that I’ve had in different ways.

I’m going to have an appointment there in medicine and hopefully have some collaborations there in medicine with my various business interests.

How does provost there compare to provost at UNC? Typically the provost here is not maintaining a lab or teaching.

Yeah, and that’s the expectation there, but I hope that after settling in for a time I’ll be able to do more science than I’ve been able to do in this job. I taught last semester [a survey course on entrepreneurship], and I hope I’ll be able to teach at Wash U in a couple of years.

Are you going to have a lab?

Not a lab with students and equipment and all that, but hopefully some collaborations.

People would be intrigued by the medical appointment specifically. What can you tell us about that?

Over the last seven years I started a company called Viamet Pharmaceuticals, and it’s got two drugs in phase two now, so I’ve learned a lot about clinical trials now. If I had gone back to the faculty here I would have been in chemistry and medicine. [The enzymology of the two drugs is related — one is anti-fungal and the other is for prostate cancer. In Phase Two you still are facing several more years of clinical trials.]

Tell us more about the process of finding yourself more suited to running the academics side instead of the whole show.

If you think about what the chancellor spends most of their time on, admittedly the last two years are maybe not a good reflection of it [because of athletics and academic scandals], but even if I look at the full five years — public relations, state politics, local politics, fundraising and athletics — those things have taken up a huge chunk of my time, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of it, and especially a lot of the things that we’ve been able to succeed at, but the provost does things like worry about what new areas we should get into, what kind of degrees we should have, retaining key faculty, attracting key faculty, enrollment, financial aid, accreditation — stuff that I’m probably better suited to do than some of the things I’ve had to do. I’m a lifelong academic.

What are your dreams for that school? Washington is very diverse academically, as UNC is. Whether or not you would have been able to attain the same kinds of things at a big public university, now you’re in a medium size private — what do you dream about?

Well, I think Washington University has done an incredible job with the things that they’ve focused on. They’ve got a top medical school; they’ve got the No. 1 school of social work; law and business are highly ranked; and they have certainly in the arts and sciences some excellent programs, but they don’t have all of them at that level yet. So helping to get all of that there, I think Washington University can go from being where it is to being one of the handful of great universities in the country. And Mark Wrighton — they’re kind of the middle of their fundraising campaign — and he’s committed to finishing that, and the resources from that should provide a way to achieve a lot of that.

Did you get calls for chancellor and president jobs?

Yeah. Sure. It’s hard for people who get caught up in the local circumstances to understand, but there are far more jobs open than there are people who have the experience to do them. So somebody like me who’s done this for five years … when you get farther away from Chapel Hill, people don’t have the same view of the problems that we’ve got here. But of everything we were approached about, Patti and I felt that being a provost and being at Wash U and working with Mark Wrighton was the best opportunity that we had been approached by.

Could you see yourself as a chancellor or president again?

Sure. Depending on the attributes of the school and the circumstances, and whether I felt the board really wanted me to do it, and Patti and I felt like we wanted to do it again. But that’s sometime in the future. I’m going there to be the provost, and I’m very happy not to be the chancellor.

It’s great to be the chancellor — there are a lot of great things that come with it, but it comes with a cost, too. And one of the things that I bring to being a provost, that a lot of other people wouldn’t bring, is I can say it would be great to be the chancellor and stand up in front of graduation and go to the White House for the meetings and all the things the chancellor gets to do, but I know very well what the other side of that coin looks like, and a lot of people who are provost don’t really know that. So I’m happy to be the provost and provide the analysis and the academic leadership and the internal stuff and let the chancellor deal with the public.

The way they have it set up at Wash U, the administration building is on the outer edge of the campus and the chancellor’s office is on one side facing out and the provost’s office is on the other side facing in, and I think that’s a good metaphor for the whole thing. So I’m happy to be the one facing in for a while.

If the school that had the job you wanted to go to was a Division I athletics school with a big emphasis on athletics, would that make a difference?

Yeah. I’m proud of what we’ve done for Carolina athletics, but I’m ready to take a break from big-time sports.

Anything you’d like to add?

It’s very hard for us to leave here. We don’t know anybody in St. Louis. I love the people here and what we’ve been able to achieve and what this university stands for. But Washington University stands for some of the same things and doesn’t stand for some of the same things. So that’s a new opportunity and an exciting opportunity, and Patti and I are excited about that and the people there, but Carolina and what it stands for is really important for us, too.


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