UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp Talks With Metro About the Extraordinary Events of the Past Two Years

By Bernie Reeves


It’s not a huge stretch to envision embattled UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp as actor Michael Caine in the 1964 film Zulu defending against waves of fierce native warriors. The movie depicts the famous 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Natal in South Africa. Approximately 4500 tall, battle-savvy Zulus – applying tactics conceived by their great ancestor, Shaka – mustered on hillsides surrounding 139 British troops before swooping down again and again for the kill. In the end, the Zulus formed for the coup de grace, spears thumping in cadence with escalating war chants. As Caine and his remaining cohort prepared for their last act on earth, the Zulus walked away in a dramatic gesture of respect for the bravery of the British soldiers.


Thorp’s Drift is on the first floor in the Chancellor’s office in South Building, the 1814 structure appropriately located directly across from the Old Well – the symbol of UNC, the oldest public university in America. The 48-year-old Chancellor, who took the reins in 2008, has been under siege since July of 2010 by the NCAA, irate football fans, alumni seeking someone to blame for what appears to be the unraveling of the university, NC State University fans – UNC’s largest rival within the UNC system of 17 campuses – who search the universe for any bad news about UNC sports – and withering fire from the Raleigh News & Observer.

But Thorp, like Michael Caine, has stood firm and survived. On June 30 he will step down as Chancellor with his integrity intact and the loud approval of UNC faculty and staff. Despite the penchant for UNC friends and foes to shake their heads and blame the Chancellor as the best way to express outrage, the worst personal criticism you hear says he is young and had to learn on the job; or he could have handled some events better in hindsight. No one has suggested any of the scandals that befell UNC during his tenure were his fault. But the post-mortem will continue apace before the final verdict is sealed on Thorp’s tenure as Chancellor through the most tumultuous period at UNC in recent memory. 

How much of what - or continues to happen as new reports of allegations and revelations irrupt - is isolated or systemic? What else could the young Chancellor or the Trustees have done? 
As Thorp put it in a private interview with Metro, “Everyone thinks athletics is a top priority due to revenue. Actually, it contributes $70 million to the operating budget, while federal research grants provide $800 million”. 

According to Thorp, “The Chancellor’s job is challenging and complex and involves much more than people realize.”

Although inter-collegiate athletics is an area of continuing focus, there are five over-arching issues demanding his attention. The job description does not list them specifically, and the public doesn’t think about his duties that extend far beyond his apparent job as top academic official:

1. Budget problems caused by the bad economy and increased state outlays for public medical costs that “take down money for UNC” require constant monitoring. “We have been in a budget squeeze since I arrived,” Thorp says.

2. The increasing “complexity and corporatization” of university management. For example, Thorp is responsible for disparate areas, including the UNC Management Company, in charge of gift and endowment investments totaling $2.1 billion, the 50,000 accounts using the schools’ Internet and email system, the Horace Williams Airport as well as a decision-making role in the management of the $2.1 billion UNC Health Care system. He also serves on various campus and area boards, including the Research Triangle Foundation.

 3. The daily involvement Thorp summarizes as “safety, politics and labor,” involving campus and Chapel Hill police departments (“first thing I tell new chancellors or presidents is to contact the chief of police before you do anything else”); dealing with town and gown issues; buildings and grounds management; real estate holdings (for example, the school’s development of the Carolina North research and mixed-use academic campus and ownership of Granville Towers); and employee labor issues. Thorp added he was pleased at the assessment of his success in this area during the campus demonstration to urge him to reconsider his resignation that said “Employee Activists Support Holden!”

4. Teamwork with the 16 other chancellors in the UNC statewide system is a priority for Thorp, adding that the Chapel Hill campus is called on “to help other campuses” as the flagship of the academic fleet, an especially important area of activity in difficult financial times. 

5. Grappling with the over-arching challenges that drive the university’s mission: What is a college education for? How do we increase access to higher education for everyone? How do we address increasing tuition with declining state funding? Does the curriculum meet the changing criteria of an up-to-date education? How will Internet learning affect the future of teaching? What will happen to the liberal arts in a technically driven society?

The reality is the Chancellor’s job is not executed by a pipe-smoking retired professor in a worn tweed coat anymore. “Thirteen out of the 35 members of the Association of American Universities (UNC is a member of this select group) have chancellors leaving this year,” Thorp said, indicating that not only is the Chancellor’s job more and more complex, but it is also becoming more and more difficult to succeed.

Surprise Attack
From his installment as UNC’s 10th Chancellor, Thorp has been engrossed in the prodigious duties of managing a $2.1 billion enterprise in charge of 45,000 souls when the call came out of the blue. The National Collegiate Athletic Association informed Thorp that two UNC football players had been questioned for receiving improper benefits and academic misconduct.

The call caught the school and Thorp off guard. Maintaining composure became a herculean task as the problems multiplied. Before any one issue could be resolved, another embarrassing report surfaced, engrossing the Chancellor in a 24/7 game of whack-a-mole. Thorp, a chemistry prodigy with no formal training in management and public relations, retained his equanimity as a perfect storm escalated into a tsunami that threatened to engulf the entire university. 

Thorp was informed by the NCAA that he could act as their representative on campus to conduct an investigation, or the school could simply wait in suspense for the NCAA to follow up when it could with the attendant risk the matter would drag on for years. At this juncture, the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Chancellor set the stage for what followed. 

Man of the Moment
Thorp’s blood is Carolina Blue. He received his undergraduate degree there in 1986 before heading out to the California Institute of Technology where he earned his doctorate in Chemistry in 1989, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale on photosynthesis. He returned to UNC in 1993 where his specialty was DNA chips, rose to chairman of the Chemistry Department and went on to head the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest academic unit in the university. Today Thorp holds 19 current or pending patents and has been published 130 times in scholarly journals. He is also co-founder of Viamet Pharmaceuticals in Durham, which has two drugs in clinical trials.

Of course he agreed to act on behalf of the NCAA. He has the brain of a Univac and the loyalty of a Marine. And he loves his school. What followed was the sine qua non of learning on the job, not only about the intricacies, subtleties and disappointments of top level management, but the reality that not everyone is as dedicated and circumspect as he is about UNC.

Thorp suspended seven players just before the opening game of the 2010-11 season against LSU that augured the launch of “big time” football at UNC under vaunted coach Butch Davis. The team lost in a close contest, and die-hard fans were convinced Thorp’s decision to suspend players had shattered their dreams. In the end, 21 players were suspended during the 2010-11 season, with 11 allowed to return. 

Thorp forced the resignation of associate football coach John Blake for his contacts with sports agents and “runners” hired to act as go-betweens with players and the money men. Jennifer Wiley, who tutored athletes, left her job under a cloud when she was accused of writing papers and supplying improper benefits for football players, including the coincidence that she was also tutor for Coach Davis’s son, then in high school, setting off conspiracy theories that have not materialized. By this point, nine violations had been addressed, resulting in self-sanctions by UNC that included three years of probation, giving up nine football scholarships, ceding 16 wins from the 2008-09 seasons (later expanded to include a one-year post-season ban) and amended to include giving up five additional scholarships over three years.

Plagiarism, Phantom Courses
But the surprises multiplied. A lawsuit filed by a suspended football player uncovered plagiarism in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies that led to revelations of academic fraud by the department chair. These included phantom courses that attracted athletes and improper compensation, among additional violations. The chairman was forced to retire and eventually the Orange County DA and the State Bureau of Investigation were called in to ascertain if criminal charges were warranted. The problems appear to have been in place earlier than 2007, as the academic transcript of star football player Julius Peppers was unearthed by vigilant computer geeks, raising additional questions.

Thorp explained: “Our internal investigation went back to 2007 because of a records request that went back to that point. We said in our internal report that the problems likely went back further. News reports have incorrectly asserted that we went back to 2007 because those were the Butch Davis years. We went back that far because of the request asking for records back to that time. The discovery of the Peppers transcript is what prompted us to order the investigation chaired by former governor Jim Martin to try to determine how far back it went and to examine if there are similar problems in other departments”.

As revelations piled on, Coach Butch Davis, who avoided the ax early in the investigation, was terminated by Thorp on July 27, just before practice began for the 2011-12 season to howls of protest from irate fans. Thorp said he did not fire Davis early on because there was no evidence linking the head coach to the activities of John Blake, adding “I didn’t want to act before we had sufficient evidence.” Perhaps Thorp was mindful of the firing of the lacrosse coach at Duke by school president Richard Brodhead in a fit of politically correct pique before the evidence proved accused lacrosse players were innocent of sexual crimes. Duke was not only embarrassed, it paid millions in damages as the case went on and on, bringing continuing negative publicity to the school. 

Things calmed down after long-time Athletic Director Dick Baddour also retired, and Larry Fedora was named coach and Bubba Cunningham Athletic Director. But in the spring, the irregularities in the African and Afro-American studies department were disclosed by the university, which led to an investigation and report by a faculty committee, the retention of an accounting firm by the Board of Trustees to certify that new procedures would catch such problems in the future and the naming of the Martin-led panel – along with a separate Board of Governors committee - to ask further questions on behalf of the UNC system.

In September 2012, Thorp was punched in the kidneys with a scandal involving a past football player. UNC’s chief fundraiser Matt Kupec, who played quarterback for UNC in the mid-1970s, resigned and agreed to pay $17,000 in restitution for travel reimbursements used for personal purposes, including unapproved trips with UNC employee Tami Hansbrough, mother of former star Carolina basketball player Tyler Hansbrough.

On September 18 Thorp tendered his resignation and will step down June 30, 2013. So what does he think he could have done differently? And how did the school’s byzantine management structure contribute to the causes and responses to the problems?

In Retrospect
“I wish I had done more to modernize the university and move us faster to better processes,” Thorp says. “We just had a run of bad luck while we were trying to adapt to the future. As an example, Thorp added, “We brought in Bain Capital (the private equity and management consulting firm where Mitt Romney was a partner) to streamline budgets before any other university in the country”, that saved the university 50 million dollars. Following Thorp’s lead, Berkeley, Cornell and others have retained Bain Capital for similar work.

Many improvements are already in process. In a release announcing his resignation, Thorp wrote: “Student applications are up 24 percent and our faculty has made us a Top 10 university in research funding. More alumni and friends made gifts to the University last year than ever before….” In other words, it appears a very fine chancellor has been sacrificed over events he could not control.

Thorp: “Chancellors and college presidents are caught between the need to manage the business functions professionally and academic management. For example, we missed the problems in African and Afro-American studies because we look for faculty members who are teaching too few courses, not too many. Or that Independent Study (one of the issues that raised eyebrows in the African and Afro-American program) is in demand for the kind of immersive academic experiences that a residential college education should provide. But how do we assure it is effective? Online is not the only answer. You need students interacting with teachers.”

Structural Problems
Governance is a “beast to do” Thorp added, when asked about the peculiar UNC system management arrangement. “North Carolina is the only state with campus boards and a system board. Some states are ‘all-system,’ like California, while others allow their campuses to be run independently by boards of trustees, like Ohio. Gordon Gee at Ohio State reports only to a campus board, for example.”

North Carolina’s college governance is indeed complicated. Thorp reports to the UNC Board of Trustees, but he actually works for the Board of Governors. Here is verbiage from the official job description handed out when Thorp was hired: “The Chancellor reports to the UNC President and is responsible for carrying out the policies of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors.” 

“When we hired Larry Fedora as Head Football Coach, I told him, as he was walking out the door, ‘all I need to do now is get approval from 46 people,’ referring to the 13-member UNC Board of Trustees, the 32-member Board of Governors and System President Tom Ross. This contradictory chain of command Thorp has to navigate would be laughable to the students and professors up the road from South Building in the Kenan-Flagler Business School. 

Thorp, when asked if he worked in the usual corporate system - in which management reports directly to a single Board of Directors - would the recent unpleasantness been easier to handle? He responded that he does work with the Board of Trustees and chairman Wade Hargrove. But the structural question lingers: the future chancellor will deal with a reporting system in which he is not actually an employee of the campus Board of Trustees.

The difficulties of the chain of command are aggravated by legal academic conditions. Thorp was forced into silence in response to queries about student athlete activities by federal laws created to ensure privacy. For example, The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents UNC and Thorp from giving the school’s side of a student incident.

With all the second-guessing he has engaged in since the call from the NCAA in 2010, Thorp says he has developed Holden’s Principle: “The information that got out, I should have gotten faster myself.” He then reflected:

“I give dozens of talks a year about UNC. I repeat two or three jokes that always receive a laugh. I tell a story about one student’s extraordinary achievement. I play a song on the piano. What I wished I had done was use these opportunities to explain what my job really is, and more about the existential challenges facing public higher education.”

Au Revoir, Not Farewell
Thorp, who plans to return to the Chemistry Department, is a renaissance man with a small ‘R’ who has achieved a wide range of accomplishments, the epitome of the sort of graduate UNC seeks to create. He is a science whiz kid, a talented musician, a solid liberal arts devotee, a very capable administrator, a hard worker and a successful entrepreneur. He has co-written an important book on the necessity of an entrepreneurial attitude on campus. He is teaching a course on the subject this semester. As an example of his well-rounded life view, Thorp added that “each lecture kicks off with a piece of famous music to emphasize that the liberal arts are the foundational key to knowledge?”

In the last scene of the 1954 Korean War film The Bridges At Toko-Ri, actor Frederic March, playing an admiral commanding a carrier task force, swivels in his chair on the ship’s bridge and contemplates the demise of drafted fighter pilot William Holden, shot down during an act of unusual heroism. “Where do we get such men?” He asks himself.

Indeed. Will we find another man like Holden Thorp to lead UNC? If so, will he too be sacrificed to an antiquated organizational chart, mob behavior and blind rage?