Holden Thorp pursues ambitions in face of budget cuts, football scandal
Holden Thorp is trying to walk a straight line in the changing world of higher education.
As the University’s 10th chancellor, he, like every other chancellor who has come before him, has had to balance present emergencies with a vision of UNC’s future.
And he’s no stranger to emergencies.
The culmination of three years of drastic state funding cuts coupled with a damaging football scandal have dominated Thorp’s professional life for the past year.
But both issues also have long-term implications for the University’s success, increasing the pressure on Thorp to choose each of his administrative steps wisely.
An older generation of University leaders, made up of alumni and former UNC-system leaders, is of the mind that tuition hikes are putting UNC in danger of abandoning its commitment to North Carolina residents, and skeptical of a growing emphasis on athletics.
Meanwhile, pressure is growing for UNC to adopt a higher tuition model on par with its national peer universities in response to the legislature’s cuts and continue to win on the court and on the field.
But Thorp remains confident that he can steer a practical approach to stay true to UNC’s commitment to the state while also enhancing its national and reputation.
“We’ve been walking that line for 200 years,” he said.
Article 9, Section 9
Dick Spangler thinks the University needs to take a good hard look at its past.
Spangler, system president from 1986 to 1997, is famous for his commitment to Article 9, Section 9 of the N.C. Constitution, which mandates that the state extend the benefits of the UNC system to state residents “as far as practicable.”
Hikes in UNC’s tuition, which have driven a nearly 33 percent increase for residents during the past three years, suggest that the University is abandoning its commitment to the state, Spangler said.
“Our University has been paid for by the people of the state — by your parents, by your grandparents if they lived here, by my grandparents, who were farmers in Cleveland County,” he said.
“They have been paying for this University for 200 years and they expect their students, their children, their grandchildren to have a good chance of going to the University if they’re qualified.”
At the most recent meeting of the UNC-system Board of Governors, members expressed a willingness to approve tuition hikes beyond its traditional 6.5 percent ceiling.
Spangler said using peer institutions to determine tuition rates is inherently unwise, given the possibility of distorting increases from the outside.
“Are we going to follow them off the cliff?” he said. “The answer to that is, no we shouldn’t.”
Tuition is an unnatural method of bringing in revenue given the primacy of the state constitution, Spangler said.
“It’s a Siren call to try to get financial support when financial support should come from the General Assembly and the people of the state.”
“It gives the legislature a chance to go home.”
Wade Hargrove, chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees, said declining state resources might have a bearing on what the University gives back.
“We have to take into account the fact that the University is receiving less support from the state because the General Assembly doesn’t have the resources to fulfill its multiple obligations to the citizens of North Carolina,” he said.
Bill Friday, UNC-system president from 1956 to 1986, is of the mind that tuition increases are acceptable, provided that about 40 percent is devoted to need-based financial aid.
“If you’re going to keep raising tuition, you have to make certain that at least 40 to 50 percent of that goes into the student aid fund because that’s the only way we can keep the doors open,” Friday said. “I’ve been of that posture since 1956 and I’ll stay there.”
Thorp’s predecessor, James Moeser, said when he was chancellor, he had a strict policy of devoting 35 to 40 percent of tuition revenue to aid.
“Handled well, we can raise tuition and make sure that we can remain affordable and accessible,” he said.
‘You have to win’
For Friday, the University’s athletic problems can be traced back to commercialization.
Contracts between the college conferences and television networks put unnatural pressures on academic institutions, he said.
“When you begin to deal in hundreds of millions of dollars, which the ACC has done now with these television contracts, you have to win,” Friday said.
“Winning becomes the dominant motivation, and when you get into those pressures you begin to do the things that we are alleged to have done and are admitting to have done.”
It’s a national problem, and only when universities take control of the industry will the pressures yield, Friday said.
“The day will come some time when we will say to them, ‘No, this is the way this is going to be’ and the universities themselves will begin to set the ground rules,” Friday said.
“It’s gotten out of control now. No one argues with that point anymore.”
Friday was quick to point out that hundreds of college teams across the country manage to be competitive without running into problems with the NCAA.
Thorp, who will appear in front of the NCAA in two weeks, has long steered a middle ground on the issue of UNC’s desire to become more competitive in athletics while also maintaining its academic prestige.
“I’m a pragmatist, so my thing is, we ought to accept the reality of all that and try to find the best way to do it,” he said.
“As far as I’m concerned, we cannot succeed as a public university and as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill without having an athletics program that is competitive.”
But former system leaders said they are optimistic, despite the formidable challenges.
Friday said that although the NCAA investigation has been “dark” and “damaging” to the University, he is confident it will recover.
“I think what we’ve experienced here is harmful and sad, but I know this institution strong and it will rise now, and do what is right and do it with enthusiasm.”
And Thorp remains the right person for the job, Friday said.
“I’m a strong supporter of Holden Thorp,” he said.
“He came from Fayetteville — he’s known this state since he’s been old enough to understand.”
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