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Adam Gold

Crisis management marks Thorp's legacy

Posted September 18, 2012

— Holden Thorp is, was and always will be a teacher, a chemist actually. And, effective June 30, 2013, that's the position to which he will return after resigning from his post as Chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It was, in his own words, "the hardest decision of my life", and it came far too soon for many within the academic walls who saw Thorp as a rising star among University leaders -- if there really is such a thing.

Thorp is a UNC lifer, a 1986 graduate. His parents each graduated from the Chapel Hill campus, as did his wife and brother, and it's safe to assume that he'll never call another place home for the rest of his life. At the time of his hiring, at age 43, Thorp was among the youngest University leaders in the country, and for all we know, were circumstances different, his tenure as Chancellor might have lasted until retirement. It was a recent departure for the University to usher into the Chancellor's office, someone with no experience running a school of this magnitude. Thorp was a scientist, an entrepreneur, a part-time jazz musician and a full-time brainiac who once placed fifth in a national Rubix Cube contest.

Crisis management was not his thing, and when events began to unfold during the mid-summer of 2010, that shortcoming was destined to become a problem.

What began as a simple case of impermissible benefits to football players morphed into a full-blown academic scandal when it was learned that one of the department heads might have been just a little too accommodating to some of the high-profile athletes on campus. Along the way it's been one public relations misstep after another, from being openly disinterested in the grading methods of that department head to allowing -- at best -- questionable travel expenses for the mother of a recent All-American basketball player, the last 26 months have been a lesson in how NOT to handle a crisis situation.

And, had many of the issues not been academic in nature, you could make a really good case for Thorp keeping his position and seeing the University through to better times. But, the reality is that from the very beginning there appeared to be a goal to make sure that this issue was blamed on, and contained to, the Butch Davis football era. The University did a poor job of protecting the players during that investigation, having one player simply hand over his personal cell phone (while curiously not having the head coach do the same) and forcing another to stand before the school's own honor court with a paper that turned out to be academically fraudulent.

But, those are just facts along the timeline. The story here is about leadership, and leaders accept responsibility for their failures and move to correct the problems. That doesn't seem to have happened under the guidance of Holden Thorp. The appearance has always been that this will blow over and be forgotten and we'll be Carolina again and maybe that would have happened if there didn't seem to be another story coming out each month.

Why didn't Holden Thorp's office demand answers from Julius Nyang'oro, the head of the African and Afro-American Studies department -- which, incidentally, falls under the School of Arts and Sciences, of which Thorp spent a year as Dean -- regarding the unusually large numbers of athletes taking extensive independent studies courses? Why didn't Thorp's office demand to know, again from Nyang'oro, how an incoming freshman football player was permitted to take a 400-level course PRIOR to his first semester, even though he had yet to take a pre-required elementary writing course? Why didn't Thorp's office demand that Nyang'oro explain the unauthorized grade changes?

Maybe he did. But, how would we know? And, how is it that Nyang'oro was allowed to retire as opposed to resign? And, how is it that it's okay that the mother of Tyler Hansbrough, one of the most decorated players in the illustrious history of University of North Carolina basketball, was allowed to travel to road games to watch her son play on the company dime? Are we supposed to believe that in her role as a large gift fundraiser for the foundation that supported the UNC Dental School that she was conducting university business on EVERY trip? Did she travel with the football team as well? Did this travel continue after Tyler was playing in the NBA?

We could go on and on and still never get to the curious case of the Julius Peppers academic transcript that was mysteriously found on an unsecured university server. Instead of falling on the sword and apologizing to Peppers for the document's public discovery and hoping that the former football player didn't bring legal action against the University for violating his rights as a student, Thorp's office pointed fingers at two, unnamed, former university employees.

That's quality leadership right there.

Holden Thorp is a brilliant man. He obviously loves his school. It's in his blood. And, I'm sure it was only in his wildest academic fantasies that he would have ever risen to the position of being the most powerful man on his campus (non-basketball division, of course). But, if you've taken the painful step to offer your resignation in the wake of this ongoing and seemingly never-ending scandal because of the toll it's taken on your family, then why wait until June 30, 2013 to step aside? You've proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are not wired to deal with this situation and there is absolutely no crime in that. Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is a talent just as solving a Rubix Cube is an enviable skill. Step aside now. Let someone more adept at negotiating this minefield of misdeeds handle the repair work.

Your efforts, while well-intended, fell short. I'm sure there are many in Chapel Hill who would love for you to stay on beyond June 30 of next summer to, as you said, "bridge any leadership gap," that may arise from the transition. However, it occurs to me that the school is likely used to that as it pertains to this scandal.

12 Comments

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  • ludcane Oct 11, 12:24 a.m.

    Something is WAY wrong at UNC!! Keep blaming Butch all you LOSERS!!! Butch turned the Miami program AROUND! All you Miami Haters will foam at the mouth at this. If he hadn't gone to Cleveland for the pros, He would have MADE Miami a Powerhouse for years!! UNC is the BIG LOSER here!! They are doing pretty good now with...... BUTCH"S BOYS!! I STILL wear MY "I'm for Butch" t-shirt up here in Chapel HILL!!
    I'm from Miami and KNEW he was the choice for UNC! look at So. Carolina's Problem's. Coaches fault ...NO! School's fault!! UNC is still hiding something!
    Holden SHOULD GO!! Butch will find a BETTER PLACE!! "I'm for BUTCH"!! UNC LOSERS!!

  • NCSU84 Sep 19, 1:57 p.m.

    WRAL did a nice job tonight in covering Thorp's support from the faculty member's. I... View More

    — Posted by Hokies94

    I think WRAL reporting of this entire scandal has been on the soft side. The News & Observer started that way, but in the past few months have been providing hard hitting evidence of more shenanigans on the Hill. Thorpe had to go and should have stepped down in 30 days nad moved on...

  • dave437 Sep 19, 9:51 a.m.

    wonder if the Chemistry department will start offering no-show classes for athletes only....

  • jmc101043 Sep 19, 8:53 a.m.

    I believe that Adam's article on Chancellor Thorp was a very fair assessment unlike some others that based their case against the chancellor on innuendo and unsubstantiated points. One even suggested that Chancellor Thorp's sphere of control over the university was similar to Coach Davis' span of control over 100 football players. As an alumnus and avid Carolina fan, I am saddened by this resignation.

  • GunnyGoesArrrgh Sep 19, 7:52 a.m.

    This is a sad day for Carolina, but it is a necessary step in the healing process, something which is constantly mentioned and anticipated, but has yet to come to fruition. Instead, more problems are discovered, resulting in deeper, festering wounds.

    I believe in all my heart that Thorp is a good man. When he took the job as Chancellor, the academic and athletic issues were already going on. Thorp trusted Baddour, who had been the AD for many years. Baddour trusted Butch. Butch trusted Blake, or more accurately, he trusted Blake not to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Kupec and Hansbrough were trusted to do their jobs with honesty and integrity. Sadly, is seems trust, or trusting the wrong people, caused many of Carolina's problems. People weren't held accountable, they were allowed to "retire" with golden parachutes.

    Yes, it's a sad day, but I still believe in Carolina. There's a lot more good than there is bad in Chapel Hill.

  • Hokies94 Sep 18, 9:28 p.m.

    In summary. "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruits are sweet."

  • Objective Scientist Sep 18, 8:57 p.m.

    The "roots" of the challenges Holden Thorp has faced were in place and growing before he became Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and subsequently Chancellor. IMO... he is not responsible for those "roots", but he does bear responsibility for the growth of such challenges since he became Chancellor. He is an exceptional "academician", and a "very good man". Thorp is a man people trust, and he is a man who is inclined to trust people. That he has had some people in whom he placed that trust - betray his trust - is obvious. Butch Davis, Dick Baddour, Matt Kupec, Tami Hansbrough... to name the better known principals, although there are others. In many ways he has been a very good, perhaps even exceptional Chancellor - but I agree with the article to which I respond - he has not been the best at "crisis management". A headline on the main WRAL site states that the faculty "BEGS" Thorp to remain as Chancellor. I don't like that word - BEG. Personally, I'd never beg someone to stay when they have stated they wanted to "go" - especially under those circumstances - and don't think it a good practice to "beg". I'd have no problem with him staying... but I do question if that is "best" for UNC. It could be because I believe Thorp would grow from all he has experienced and with the support of the faculty, the various Boards and Tom Ross - he could straighten out the incredible, incredulous MESS that currently exists, but "fresh leadership" could also be the answer. IMO... professors, coaches, athletes - should ALL be held more accountable! Write contracts that do not permit someone to royally "screw up", yet receive no penalty - but receive a HUGE paycheck for leaving as Butch Davis did! Blake got a nice check for leaving, Dick Baddour is retiring under EXTREMELY generous financial conditions, Nyang'ro - we all know what he did and yet he retires with a very generous pension. A system needs to be created that holds such people ACCOUNTABLE! SCREW UP - you're penalized!

  • Hammerhead Sep 18, 6:24 p.m.

    You gotta know when to fold, and know when to Holden.

  • Hokies94 Sep 18, 6:22 p.m.

    WRAL did a nice job tonight in covering Thorp's support from the faculty member's. I appreciated the faculty supporting him, and I also enjoyed the interviews too.

  • Hokies94 Sep 18, 4:09 p.m.

    I stated previously that Thorp is a highly intelligent person. First thing out of the gate as the Chancellor should have been to clean up the AA Studies program. It was created before he was there, but all knew about giving out grades, and etc... Then the History of Davis, Blake, Baddour, Wiley, Kupec, and Hansbrough, and who/whom knows the next person that will be caught up with in this long-running saga up there. He is still going to remain employed at the University. I'm sure that he loves UNC, and it will take time to heal some wounds.

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