Holden Thorp leaves UNC on path to fixing problems

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UNC Board of Governors Chair Hannah Gage and UNC President Erskine Bowles applaud Chancellor Holden Thorp during Sunday’s University Day ceremony on Polk Place in 2008. The ceremony featured the presentation of distinguished alumni, remarks by community and state leaders, and the official installation of Thorp as the tenth chancellor of the University. An estimated 2,750 people attended the event.

When a younger Holden Thorp played bass in the band, he would think of himself as the guy who sits in the background and makes the other instruments sound good.

As a student at UNC, he would go to the outside bar He’s Not Here to enjoy a drink with his friends from the lab — but would leave at 9:30 at night, because there was work to do and he took it seriously.

Throughout his life, Thorp was never the kind of person who wanted to draw attention to himself, so as he rose through the ranks at his alma mater and eventually earned what he considers the most public position in North Carolina, it was quite the adjustment.

But add in a few years of unraveling scandal, and the job grew to be more difficult, as that faint spotlight on Thorp turned into a high-powered microscope.

“I was starting to feel that being the chancellor of one of the most public universities in the world was maybe not perfectly suited to my skills,” Thorp said.

Seven months since he announced his resignation, Thorp is more confident than ever in his decision as he prepares to leave for his new position as provost of Washington University in St. Louis.

But some of Thorp’s colleagues disagree that he lacks the skillset and personality to lead a public university.

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce Carney. “I think he has the personality to be a leader in a public or private (university).”

Carney hopes this isn’t the last UNC will see of Thorp, who dedicated close to three decades as a student, professor, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and then chancellor.

“I’m hoping he’ll come back some day,” Carney said. “I don’t know if that will happen, but I hope he does.”

When Thorp steps out of South Building for good in less than 10 weeks, one question will remain on the minds of those who followed his chancellorship: What is his legacy?

Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center who worked alongside Thorp on the chancellor’s advisory committee for years, said all that’s happened during Thorp’s term should make the answer clear.

“When we think about the legacy that he leaves behind, think about this series and what those events could have done, they could have torn the fabric of the University to its core,” he said.

“Yet we had this individual who had all these skillsets that he was able to put those things together, and whatever his personal legacy is — there’s no question that we’re in a better place.”

‘Nobody’s prepared’

Thorp admits he had enjoyed a streak of good luck as dean of the college before taking the reins of the University in 2008.

UNC had just seen the three best budgets in history, fundraising was going well, and Thorp was even giving raises.

“Everybody thought I was a genius,” he said. “I did probably do a good job at that, but I had all the intangibles going for me.

“And then I got in this job, and had a bad budget, an athletics crisis, discovered a 14-year-old academic fraud problem, so I had a lot of bad luck in that sense, but I’d had a lot of good luck.”

Though Thorp believes the administration handled the budget challenges well, nothing prepared him for what was on the horizon with athletics.

“We had never had anything like that in 50 years that we just didn’t have as much stamina and muscle tone as we needed to deal with it,” he said.

He said the gravity of the situation hit him the day the news broke about former tutor Jennifer Wiley’s improper assistance to football player Marvin Austin. He went to football practice to talk to the team as a news helicopter hovered above.

“So you can talk all the time about ‘Holden wasn’t prepared for this’ — nobody’s prepared … no college professor is prepared to go talk to somebody and have the news chopper filming them.”

As the situation escalated, Thorp said, it became harder to stay on top of everything.

But Thorp said now, despite the problems he has faced, positive aspects of his tenure will carry the narrative forward.

With the hiring of Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, football coach Larry Fedora and Carol Folt, who will step in as chancellor on July 1, Thorp said aspects of UNC’s image — including its recently criticized handling of sexual assault — are on their way to being fixed.

“Throughout my life I’ve sometimes gotten myself into these types of difficulties because I am inquisitive and ask a lot of questions about what’s going on,” he said.

“But I’ve always managed to find a good way to fix it all in the end, even if it wasn’t an elegant pathway to get there.”

‘Enough giant lizards’

When Thorp tries to explain to friends his new position as provost, he puts it in terms they understand.

“It’s sort of like being Mr. Spock,” he said about assisting Chancellor Mark Wrighton.

“You stay on the ship and do all the analyzing and Captain Kirk goes down to the planet and fights the giant lizard.

“I’ve had enough — I’ve fought enough giant lizards.”

And now that Thorp is finishing the fight, he thinks about the times he felt like the right person doing the right thing at the right time. And they usually involved students, faculty and staff.

“I feel like the way I was able to connect with and listen to the people on campus was as good as I could do,” Thorp said.

He’s proud of UNC’s growth in research funding, his revitalization of town politics and what he has put in place to move the University forward, including emphasizing innovation and entrepreneurship.

James Holman, a housekeeping crew leader, said Thorp has helped change the culture of housekeeping on campus, and there might never be another chancellor who is as concerned about staff issues as Thorp is.

“He’s fantastic — the man — I would do anything for him,” Holman said. “Anything he’d ask me to do, I would do it.”

Contact the desk editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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