Gone was the Carolina blue tie, replaced with a green one, when UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp posed for a picture with his next boss, Mark Wrighton, the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.
It’s a standard touch of school spirit in the world of higher education – a newly hired college administrator wearing the campus colors.
But it was a bit of an unusual twist for the Tar Heel born-and-bred Thorp, who spent 25 years at his alma mater, to be going somewhere else. And Thorp, the CEO of a large public university, is taking a step down to the second-in-command role of provost at Washington, a medium-sized private university.
Still, those who know Thorp say the move likely suits him at this point in his career.
He will manage the academic side of a university, without having to navigate a difficult political landscape, constant media scrutiny and the burden of fundraising. And though he will technically oversee the administrators who manage Washington University’s Division III athletics program, he’s unlikely to have to deal with scandals such as the ones that have dogged him for two years in Chapel Hill.
“When I think about what he truly loves to do, I think he really does like to work more hands-on in the internal workings of the university with faculty, staff and students,” said Will Leimenstoll, UNC-CH student body president, who has served alongside Thorp.
Leimenstoll said he doesn’t blame Thorp for leaving to take a job where he can focus his energy on his passion – academics – without “having to put up with difficulties and conflicts that are outside of his control.”
For two years, Thorp was consumed with several scandals that began with improper benefits and tutoring for football players. Then UNC-CH made national news when an academic fraud scandal was uncovered in the African and Afro-American Studies department, where investigations found no-show classes, poorly supervised independent study courses and unauthorized grade changes. And the university’s chief fundraiser resigned following revelations that he and his girlfriend, the mother of a former UNC-CH basketball player, charged the university for personal travel.
When he announced his decision to step down in September, he said it would be best for his family and for the university. Trustees, faculty and students asked him to reconsider and stay in the job, but he declined. At the time, Thorp said he wanted to return to the chemistry lab and classroom, where he had spent the bulk of his career
On Monday, as the campus absorbed the news of his departure in several months from Chapel Hill, Thorp was in St. Louis, meeting with his new colleagues. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
His new boss, Wrighton, 63, who has led Washington for 18 years, has said he will remain in the chancellor’s position until 2018, when the university’s $2.2 billion fundraising campaign is wrapped up.
In interviews with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the two tried to dispel the notion that Thorp had a deal to succeed Wrighton in the top job.
“I’m coming here to be the provost, and I hope it’s a long time before that conversation takes place,” Thorp told the newspaper.
But it’s clear that Wrighton is comfortable entrusting the day-to-day management of the campus to Thorp.
“If I’m in the air on a 15-hour trip to India and something unforeseen occurs, it’s good to know that it’s probably something he has already seen before,” Wrighton told the Post-Dispatch.
Public school pressure
Public university presidents operate in a pressure cooker, with tenures growing shorter and leaders often opting to move into private education or the private sector. A former provost at UNC-CH, Robert Shelton, went on to become the president at the University of Arizona, only to resign and take a position as head of the Fiesta Bowl.
Meanwhile, provosts seem to be satisfied with their role running the academic enterprise. Inside Higher Ed and Gallup conducted a survey of provosts and found that only 22 percent said they wanted to be a college president someday.
Wade Hargrove, chairman of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees, said in a statement Monday that Washington University’s gain is Carolina’s loss. He praised Thorp for guiding the university through a difficult time that included an 18 percent state budget cut and a $50 million annual reduction in university spending.
And despite a stream of headlines about problems, Hargrove said Thorp has set UNC-CH on a better course for the future.
“Chancellor Thorp has put in long-needed academic reforms to assure greater accountability for the university’s academic performance, and he has provided invaluable leadership for the university in achieving an appropriate balance between athletics and academics,” Hargrove said.
No lame duck
Observers say Thorp won’t be a lame duck at UNC-CH. There is plenty on his plate before he starts in St. Louis on July 1. Next month, Hunter Rawlings, head of the Association of American Universities, will come to Chapel Hill to lead a panel on academics/athletics balance. Thorp called for that discussion.
In April, Thorp will have to convince an accrediting team that the reforms and policy changes put in place will prevent future occurrences of academic fraud and problems related to athletics. That may be his biggest chore ahead.
He has pledged a seamless transition when the new chancellor is chosen sometime this spring.
Leimenstoll, for one, doesn’t expect to see Thorp, 48, in a No. 2 job for long.
“It would be a loss for higher education if he didn’t become a president again at some point in the future,” he said.
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