CHAPEL HILL More than 200 UNC-Chapel Hill professors united Tuesday in an impassioned plea to Holden Thorp to stay in the role of chancellor beyond next year – a likely futile effort to hang on to a leader who is one of their own.
At a hastily called meeting, professors packed an auditorium and erupted into a standing ovation when Thorp walked in unexpectedly, one day after announcing he would step down as chancellor next June after two years of athletic-related scandals. The faculty members passed a resolution backing him and asking UNC system President Tom Ross not to accept Thorp’s resignation.
Thorp called the faculty gathering “one of the most moving experiences of my life.” Wearing a Carolina blue paisley necktie, he told the crowd that as much as he appreciated the outpouring of support, “my plan is to sit out there with you. And it looks really good right now.”
The emotional day, which one longtime professor compared to a faculty meeting just after the 1970 Kent State shootings, came with the realization that the university faces an uncertain future and a leadership vacuum. Provost Bruce Carney, the chief academic officer, announced his plan to return to teaching at the end of this academic year. And last week, UNC-CH lost its top fundraiser, Matt Kupec, who resigned abruptly amid questions about improper travel.
Thorp had recently launched a strategic planning process with campus trustees to create a “21st century vision” of the university, accompanied by an ambitious fundraising campaign that was to be led by Kupec.
UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss personnel matters behind closed doors.
Presumably, the campus will launch a months-long process to find Thorp’s successor soon, so the strategic planning may have to wait until the next leader is in place. Meanwhile, Thorp will continue to focus on implementing reforms to prevent future academic abuses related to athletics.
Former Chancellor James Moeser said that, in a sense, Thorp will have more freedom now. He will not need to worry about media coverage and can make any tough decisions necessary to fix the problems, Moeser said.
“I don’t think actually there will be very much loss of momentum,” said Moeser, now a faculty member who was on hand at the meeting to support Thorp. “I really think this place is very strong. This affirmative response from the faculty today is a very telling sign of the commitment of the faculty here. … This is the faculty that has pushed us to be in the top 10 in federal (research) funding, which is an incredible feat.”
Still a good position
Despite the recent string of problems, Moeser said, he believes UNC-CH will attract top-notch leaders in the future.
“It’s a very difficult job,” Moeser said. “But it is still one of the best positions in American higher education. It’s one of the great universities.”
On Tuesday, some faculty expressed fears about whether the next chancellor would be more of a CEO-type who doesn’t have the same devotion to academic ideals and faculty involvement in decision-making. Many, though, were not ready to look ahead. They regretted not having done enough to stand behind Thorp, and they desperately wanted him to stay.
“Universities are more than sports teams,” biology professor Greg Copenhaver said to applause from the crowd. “They’re more than training programs. They are a vessel for society’s hopes and dreams and values. It is my belief that Chancellor Thorp represents the best of those values – visionary creativity, civility, and a deep belief in shared governance.”
Other groups joined the chorus with their own resolutions, including an association of retired faculty members and the Employee Forum, which represents 12,000 staff members. On Friday, students and staff plan to gather at the center of campus in a show of support for Thorp.
Michael Gerhardt, a law professor, said Thorp never bent on his commitment to academic integrity or his affinity with faculty – “somebody who believes in each of us and everything that we do.”
Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine, said each faculty member should also take responsibility for making the university a “leadable” place where someone like Thorp, who came from the faculty, can succeed.
She also said she is torn because she knows what he’s been through. “Personally, I don’t want him to take any more punches,” she said.
Thorp, 48, said he decided over the weekend that it is best for the university and for his family for him to leave the chancellor’s job next summer. He plans to return to his position as a professor in the chemistry department, where he has spent most of his career.
Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the faculty, said about a dozen faculty leaders met in an emergency session Monday night to try to come up with a plan to change Thorp’s mind.
She said the group was partially influenced by what happened at the University of Virginia in June, when an outpouring of faculty support helped lead to the reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan after she was ousted by the university’s board.
Thorp was not forced out and has had support from trustees and the UNC system governing board. The situations are very different, Boxill said, but the common thread may be the power of faculty governance.
“We saw in Virginia how they mobilized so quickly, and that’s what we did as well,” Boxill said.
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