Published: February 18, 2013 Updated 4 minutes ago
By Jane Stancill — Jstancill@newsobserver.com
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp won’t return to the chemistry labs at the university he has led for five years. When he steps down as chancellor, he’ll head to Washington University in St. Louis to become provost there.
Thorp, 48, who had previously said he would remain on the UNC-CH faculty, will be the chief academic officer of a highly ranked, private university with a robust research enterprise and healthy endowment. The university, with 12,000 full-time students, boasts engineering and medical schools and nearly two dozen Nobel laureates among faculty and alumni. One thing it doesn’t have: big-time intercollegiate athletics. The Washington University Bears compete in the NCAA’s Division III.
In an email he prepared to send out Monday to students, faculty and staff, the chancellor said the position would represent 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,” he wrote.
Thorp starts the job in St. Louis on July 1. By that time, UNC-CH is expected to have a new chancellor in place.
The announcement early Monday came as a surprise to many at the university where Thorp started as an undergraduate and spent his career as a chemistry professor, department chairman, planetarium director and dean before becoming chancellor in 2008.
Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the faculty, said she wasn’t expecting him to leave.
“Then again, it’s not a surprise because he’s taken a lot of hits,” she said. “It’s seriously Carolina’s loss. I think he’s been a tremendous chancellor … He’s been through a lot; he took us through a lot. It’s just going to be a big loss.”
Thorp announced in September that he would step down as chancellor at the end of the academic year. He planned to relinquish the position for the good of the university, he said, to return to the classroom and his chemistry lab.
Athletic, academic trouble
For more than two years, Thorp was consumed with a sprawling scandal that started with improper benefits and tutoring for football players and spread to academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies department.
The drawn-out saga took its toll on Thorp, who struggled to get beyond the trouble despite a series of internal and external investigations and a host of reforms. While many faculty begged him to stay and students held a rally to support him, Thorp said it was best for his family and the university for him to step aside.
Thorp was in St. Louis and could not be reached for comment Sunday.
In his email, he struck an upbeat tone about his future and the road ahead for UNC-CH.
“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,” he 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.”
He also talked about achievements under his leadership – UNC-CH’s ascension into the top 10 campuses for federal research and development dollars and a major increase in applications for admission. Thorp helped steer the university through a state budget crisis and launched new initiatives that infused entrepreneurship and innovation into the classroom.
Still, the problems related to athletics dogged him. When he fired football coach Butch Davis, he was both praised and vilified. There was self-imposed probation for the football program, along with the NCAA’s punishments – a postseason ban and the elimination of scholarships.
And the academic fraud investigation seemed to get worse with each revelation. An internal probe turned up dozens of no-show classes heavily enrolled by athletes, poorly supervised independent study courses and forged faculty signatures. Then, an outside investigation by former Gov. Jim Martin found deeper problems, with more than 200 irregular courses going back to the late 1990s. The blame was pinned on a former department chairman and manager who no longer work at the university.
While the NCAA decided not to investigate further, the State Bureau of Investigation is looking for potential criminal violations.
Accrediting agency involved
Meanwhile, the situation caught the attention of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, the university’s accrediting agency. A review team will visit UNC-CH this spring, but a recent letter from the SACS president questioned the validity of degrees awarded to students who took the bogus classes.
Thorp has pledged to work through June to resolve the problems and put the scandal to rest. To that end, he has invited Hunter Rawlings, head of the Association of American Universities, to lead a discussion on campus this spring on the place of athletics.
Washington University leaders had nothing but praise for Thorp in Monday’s announcement.
Washington’s chancellor, Mark Wrighton, said Thorp was perfectly suited to help drive the university’s momentum.
“Holden Thorp is one of America’s most highly respected leaders in higher education,” Wrighton said in a news release. “He is a great scientist with an excellent track record of achievement and a reputation for his commitment to student success, academic excellence and professional integrity. He is an entrepreneur who has founded two companies and understands the importance of innovation and technology transfer.”
Thorp said in the news release he was excited at the prospect of his new job. He said Washington University has set lofty goals with a vision that is “bold, unapologetic and focused on the right kind of academic objectives. I was drawn to all that.”
During his tenure, Thorp built a network of contacts while serving on a number of national higher-education groups and a commission on degree attainment.
His prowess as a scientist is unquestioned. He has published 130 scholarly articles on the electronic properties of DNA and RNA and holds 12 patents. He co-founded two biotechnology companies and last year was selected as a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.
At Washington University, he will hold an endowed professorship in two departments – chemistry and medicine.
As the university’s second in command, he will manage the academic side of the institution and won’t oversee athletics. In the Washington University news release, he said he and his wife, Patti, will cheer on the Bears just as enthusiastically as they supported the Heels in Chapel Hill.
“I will always love Carolina,” he wrote in his email to the UNC-CH family. “The 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.”