September 28, 2012
By Jane Stancill – firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAPEL HILL — The search for Holden Thorp’s successor at UNC-Chapel Hill begins at a time of turnover and turbulence for public university leaders.
A committee is scheduled to meet next week with UNC system President Tom Ross to launch its search for the next chancellor at the Chapel Hill campus. That committee, which includes trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and students, will ultimately recommend at least two candidates to Ross, who will make his choice. The UNC system’s Board of Governors will then officially elect the next chancellor.
The national search will take months. The next chancellor should be chosen by the end of the academic year and in place by July 1, said Trustee Chairman Wade Hargrove, who will lead the committee.
“The goal is to find the most qualified person we can find to run this university and build upon the 200-year tradition of academic excellence that is the bedrock value of this university,” Hargrove said.
On Thursday, trustees got a sobering review of the public higher education landscape from Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, a prestigious organization that represents 61 of the leading research universities in the United States and Canada.
Rawlings, who has been asked to lead a conversation about the balance of athletics and academics at UNC-CH, was on campus Thursday to talk about the overall role of research universities. But his talk laid out the particular challenges of public university presidents, who face increasing pressure from many fronts – financial and ideological, plus the dominating influence of intercollegiate athletics, a move toward corporatization in higher education and tension between university systems and flagships.
There is eroding support for public universities, which are increasingly being operated like businesses with students, or consumers, paying tuition for job credentials as opposed to education.
“There are state leaders now in this country who do not believe in public support for public higher education,” he said. “They don’t believe in it fundamentally … and with that lack of support goes, in some cases, open hostility towards university leadership.”
Rawlings said since he started in his role at AAU 18 months ago, 13 presidents of public universities in the association have left the position, most of them prematurely. Some were fired, some resigned under duress, he said, but one thing is clear – early departures impede long-term planning and momentum. Of the 61 universities in the organization, 35 are public.
“We’re seeing unprecedented turnover of public university presidents or chancellors,” Rawlings said. “Meanwhile, private universities are thriving again.”
Public vs. private
The growing gap between public and private universities is a disturbing trend, Rawlings said, and more people value education as a private interest rather than a democratic good.
“On a national basis, we can unfortunately conclude that the old public compact we had in this country is broken,” he said.
But while the job of public university president is brutally tough, Rawlings predicted UNC-CH would attract strong leaders.
“I think you’re going to get a really good chancellor,” he said. “I’m not the least bit pessimistic about it. This place really has a great reputation. Everybody reads about the problems, yeah, those are problems. But underneath it, this is a terrific place.”
No second thoughts
Earlier in the day Thursday at the trustee meeting, the crowd gave a standing ovation to Thorp, who announced last week that he would step down at the end of this academic year. Despite all the efforts to persuade him to stay on the job, Thorp said he is sure that it’s in the best interest of his family and the university if he returns to the faculty. He will be a professor in the chemistry department.
Thorp said he looks forward to working in the next nine months to usher in new policies and reforms to correct the trouble in athletics that plagued the last two years of his tenure. That, he said, will “make sure that the next chancellor doesn’t have to deal with some of the problems that we have been confronting.”
Hargrove said the athletic-related scandals should not overshadow the progress on every traditional performance measure during the five-year Thorp era. “Yes, there have been mistakes, problems,” Hargrove said. “Our goal is to address those problems and make sure they really do not ever, ever happen again and to hold those persons responsible for those accountable.”
Various investigations continue into academic fraud related to athletes, and an audit is under way on improper travel by university fundraisers.