Crisis management marks Thorp's legacy
Posted September 18, 2012
Chapel Hill, N.C. — 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.