When Holden Thorp was named chancellor in 2008, he was supposed to lead the University for the next 20 years.
Thorp, a Fayetteville native and UNC alumnus, became the University’s 10th chancellor at a young age, laying out a compelling, research-based vision for the University. Colleagues said he had the talent, the motivation and the intellect to make his vision into a reality.
But now, five years into Thorp’s chancellorship, stringent budget cuts and a series of scandals have marred that vision irreparably.
Thorp announced Monday that he will step down as chancellor on June 30.
“Nobody asked me to make this decision,” Thorp said in an interview. “Over the weekend Patti (Thorp) and I talked about how much we’ve been through the last two and a half years, and the future of the University and came to the conclusion.”
“We’re pretty worn out.”
Thorp has presided over one of the most damaging scandals in the University’s history, beginning with an NCAA investigation into its football program and eventually leading into a costly investigation of the University’s academics.
Thorp’s decision to resign came at the end of a week that raised other questions — those revolving around Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Matt Kupec and major gifts officer Tami Hansbrough’s travel records.
Kupec resigned Sunday, Sept. 9, and Hansbrough resigned two days later.
On Friday, Thorp attended a closed session meeting with a UNC-system Board of Governors committee, where members were updated on that controversy, among others.
Thorp will return to teaching and research next year, which has been an option tugging at him for a while, he said.
“It’s been a tough two years. So there have been days where I thought that being in the lab looked pretty good,” he said.
“(Sunday) was the day when it looked really good.”
“So I’m going to spend more time with students — and less time wearing a suit.”
A push to change Thorp’s mind
Thorp made the decision to step down, but some faculty hope the decision is not final.
James Moeser, Thorp’s predecessor who was chancellor from 2000 to 2008, said many faculty are coming together to change Thorp’s mind.
“I can tell you that a lot of people are rallying to support Chancellor Thorp, both on campus and off campus,” Moeser said.
Thorp said Monday that members of the Board of Trustees asked him several times to reconsider his decision to step down.
Jean DeSaix, a master lecturer in the biology department and a member of the faculty executive committee, said there was an emergency meeting called Monday night to start drafting a resolution in Thorp’s support, one that would encourage him to reconsider his decision.
“We just love him so much,” DeSaix said.
While Moeser said he and other faculty members want him to make the best decision for himself, he does think this might have some sort of effect on Thorp.
“I spoke with him this afternoon. Only he can tell you what his decision is going to be … But he can’t helped but be moved, I think, by this expression of support.”
Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the faculty, added that there will be a general meeting of the faculty at 4 p.m. today to discuss Thorp’s resignation and gauge the faculty’s perspective.
“All of us are trying to urge him to consider … I think it’s a shame that we see such talent and a person of integrity being affected by things that are out of his control.”
Sallie Shuping-Russell, chairwoman of the budget, finance and audit committee of the Board of Trustees, said Thorp brought something special to the position of chancellor — making him the best she’s worked with.
“I think he has brought things to this campus, additions to this campus, that were needed and new and quite unique to what Holden Thorp could offer,” she said.
“And I’m afraid we may have lost that.”
‘The perfect storm’
Throughout his term as chancellor, Thorp has faced difficult circumstances that have consistently called his leadership into question.
But Wade Hargrove, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said these problems were not created during his administration.
“The chancellor has inherited a set of problems not of his making and has done an exemplary job in trying to address those problems in a thoughtful and deliberate manner,” he said.
“We will miss his leadership. He has the full confidence of the Board of Trustees … This was his decision.”
UNC-system President Thomas Ross said the Board of Governors did not play a role in Thorp’s resignation either, and he was saddened to hear of Thorp’s decision.
“There was no effort or movement to remove him at any point. He was aware of where the board was when he was considering this decision.”
Shuping-Russell said that although it is disappointing that Thorp will not carry out a 20-year term, he had faced unusual circumstances and was bogged down by “the perfect storm.”
“You have not had a worse time in the University’s history,” she said. “You didn’t just have specific issues to the University, there was a global breakdown … He’s been the chancellor throughout all of that.”
Since April, Thorp has been dealing with the academic impropriety revealed after a University investigation was conducted into the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, revealing classes that were taught irregularly or not at all.
Some of these classes had a disproportionately large number of athletes, opening a University-wide debate about the bridge between athletics and academics.
But last week, yet another scandal emerged when questions surfaced about improper use of travel funds by Kupec and Hansbrough.
“I wish … the events of last week had not come up,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce Carney. “I thought we were on a really good track, and over a long period of time, analyses and evaluations, we could be putting lots of things behind us.”
“(The resignations) must have played in, the coincidence and timing is too close but, oh gosh, the University is now really going to be struggling.”
The University will now have three question marks at the top of its administration — chancellor, provost and vice chancellor for University advancement, UNC’s head fundraiser.
The search for Carney’s replacement has also been put on hold until the chancellor search, which will be organized by Hargrove, is finished.
Carney said that although he still plans on stepping down at the end of the year, he will do what is necessary to help the University at the end of the day.
Jay Smith, a history professor who has been the forefront of the faculty debate about the academic scandal, said he believes this last occurrence is what pushed Thorp to step down.
“There had been a couple of other moments in this nightmare that I thought I would wake up to headlines that the chancellor had resigned. I never imagined it would have been today,” Smith said.
“I’m guessing that this fundraising scandal was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Senior Writers Liz Crampton and Daniel Wiser contributed reporting.
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