Holden Thorp ’86, who in September told faculty and students that he was eager to get back into the UNC chemistry classroom after he decided to resign as chancellor, is being named provost at Washington University in St. Louis today.
“When I announced my decision last September to step down as chancellor, I was humbled and flattered by your outpouring of support,” Thorp wrote in a message to student, faculty and staff dated today. “This exciting new opportunity represents the best of both worlds. 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’ve enjoyed as chancellor.”
Thorp, who had planned to stay at Carolina until July 1 or until his successor was named, said, “I expect a seamless transition this summer and pledge to continue to do everything that I can until the day I leave South Building to make sure that my successor is in the best possible position to succeed.”
In addition to provost, he will hold an endowed professorship in the departments of chemistry and medicine. The appointments at Washington are effective July 1.
A week after his announcement, Thorp talked with the Review 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. The full interview is available at alumni.unc.edu/go/ThorpQandA.
“For more than two years, there is no question that we have faced some of the most difficult issues to come before the University in decades,” Thorp wrote. “We have met those challenges head on and put much-needed reforms in place. It’s been painful, but we’ve become a better university as a result.”
Washington is a prestigious, well-funded private school with about 14,000 students enrolled – about 7,200 undergraduates – and an 86 percent graduation rate. Its College of Arts and Sciences looks very much like Carolina’s in programs offered. It ranks fifth nationally in the number of National Merit scholars, is third behind Harvard and Stanford in the number of doctoral degrees awarded (800) and ranks eighth in federal research support. Its endowment fund ranked 11th at $5.4 billion in 2010-11, and it was 10th in voluntary gift support that year at $211 million.
U.S. News & World Report has Washington ranked 14th nationally, just behind Johns Hopkins and just ahead of Brown. Its medical school, which dates to 1891, is highly ranked in several specialty areas.
Since the mid-1970s, the Washington athletics teams have competed in NCAA Division III. It competes in 19 sports.
Thorp has been in Chapel Hill, his undergraduate alma mater, since he returned from graduate school in 1993 as an assistant professor of chemistry. He rose at Carolina about as fast as he could move his books from office to office: He was named a Kenan professor, took over as director of a then-troubled Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in 2001 and went back to chemistry as department chair in 2005. Less than two years later, he became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and less than a year later, in May 2008, was chosen the university’s 10th chancellor.
At age 43, he was believed to have the potential for a long tenure. His initial theme for UNC was to tackle the world’s most intractable problems – disease, pollution, hunger and the like – through research and service. He said he wanted Carolina to be the kind of place where people with great ideas took risks “instead of merely adding increments to what we know.”
But in the summer of 2010, an NCAA investigation into relationships between some football players and professional agents opened a window into irregularities in players’ work with UNC athletics tutors, and that flowed into a full-blown scandal involving fraudulent practices in the department of African and Afro-American studies that cast a harsh light on athletes. In August 2011, Thorp’s firing of head Coach Butch Davis placed him in a firestorm from which he could not recover, and he resigned last September, clearly exhausted from the ordeal.
Over a two-year period, the University’s athletics program had gone from being consistently listed among the model programs in the country — in competitiveness, academics and integrity — to being a regular on the list of schools caught breaking NCAA rules.
More recently, the University’s chief of fundraising, Matt Kupec ’80, resigned after he was questioned about travel expenses charged to the University for trips taken with another fundraising officer with whom he was in a relationship — travel that might not have been for University business.
Thorp resigned with the full support of UNC System President Thomas Ross ’75 (JD) and the Chapel Hill trustees; students and faculty members held large rallies to try to convince him to reconsider.
On the day in September when he faced 250 faculty and told them he could not rescind his decision to resign, it appeared he was excited to return to the classroom. He had planned to take a year’s leave, fairly standard for a departing chancellor, then go back to the chemistry department.
In his message today to the campus, Thorp said: “I’m proud of the University’s recent accomplishments, including making our first top 10 appearance in federal funding for research and development; growing undergraduate admissions applications by 43 percent – the largest five-year gain in recent campus history; positioning Carolina as a leader in our country’s debate about college costs, retention and attainment; bringing the national spotlight to our efforts to promote innovation and entrepreneurship; and working successfully with our local community partners, especially the Town of Chapel Hill.
“I’m confident that Carolina is in a better place, and the next chancellor will continue to build on the progress we’ve made working together,” Thorp said. “I will always love Carolina. This University and this community have been my home for more than 25 years and have meant more to me personally and professionally than I can measure or describe.”