CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Holden Thorp will step down as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the end of the 2012-13 school year, the university announced Monday.
UNC's flagship campus has been beset by scandal for the past two years, including an NCAA investigation of the Tar Heel football program and internal probes of possible academic fraud in one department and questionable travel expenses by the school's top fundraiser.
“I will always do what is best for this university," Thorp said in a statement. "This wasn’t an easy decision personally, but when I thought about the university and how important it’s been to me, to North Carolinians and to hundreds of thousands of alumni, my answer became clear."
The UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the 17-campus system, met privately Friday with Thorp for about 50 minutes. He said afterward that the board didn't reprimand him for problems at UNC-Chapel Hill, noting that he's shown he's willing to act forcefully to clean up the problems.
"The chancellor is performing well by many measurements," Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans said after Friday's meeting. "I think every chancellor is to be evaluated as we go along. He clearly has some issues on campus he needs to successfully deal with."
Former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, a member of the Board of Governors, said Monday that Thorp had become the face of damage control in Chapel Hill.
"Whether he caused (the problems) or not, you know, he's the captain of the ship," Mitchell said. "He has stepped forward and sacrificed himself, really, for the good of the university.
"I do believe at this point his leaving is for the good of the university," Mitchell continued. "I think it removes a target, basically. Chancellor Thorp had become sort of the lightning rod for the university."
UNC President Tom Ross said in the statement that Thorp approached him Sunday to offer his resignation and would stay beyond June 30 if a successor hadn't been named by then.
"Chancellor Thorp’s love of and devotion to UNC-Chapel Hill are beyond question,” Ross said. “I have accepted his announcement with considerable sadness but fully understand he is acting in what he believes to be the best interests of UNC-Chapel Hill and the entire university. Whether you’re measuring the quality of its students, the productivity of its faculty or the benefits of its world-class research, Carolina has made great strides during his tenure.”
Thorp, 48, has served as chancellor since July 2008. He previously was dean of the school's College of Arts and Sciences, director of Morehead Planetarium on campus and a chemistry professor.
He will return to his work as chemistry professor and researcher after leaving the chancellor's office, officials said. Under his severance package, which is common in academia, he will maintain his $420,000 chancellor's salary for a year, and it will then be lowered to 60 percent of that as he returns to the classroom and laboratory.
Wade Hargrove, chairman of UNC-Chapel Hill's Board of Trustees, said he and other trustees tried to talk Thorp out of resigning.
"Holden has the full support of the Board of Trustees," Hargrove said in a statement. "I respect his unwavering commitment to always do what he thinks best serves the university. Holden Thorp has done an exemplary job as chancellor, especially in improving a wide range of processes and academic and fiscal management procedures.”
"He has given his heart and soul to the University of North Carolina since he was a boy," Mitchell said of Thorp.
Regularly ranked among the nation's top universities, UNC's reputation has been tarnished by the NCAA's findings that football players received improper benefits and by the ongoing investigation of irregularities in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, including altered grades and classes with little or no instruction.
Last week, Vice Chancellor for Advancement Matt Kupec and Tami Hansbrough, a major gifts officer at UNC-Chapel Hill and the mother of former Tar Heels basketball star Tyler Hansbrough, resigned from their jobs under suspicion of improper travel spending.
Thorp ordered an internal audit of the travels by Kupec and Tami Hansbrough after finding evidence that some of the 28 fundraising trips they took together since 2010 might have been "personally driven."
“Over the last two years, we have identified a number of areas that need improvement,” Thorp said in the statement. “We have a good start on reforms that are important for the future of this university. I have pledged that we will be a better university, and I am 100 percent confident in that. We still have work to do, and I intend to be fully engaged in that until the day I walk out of this office.”
Ross said Thorp can now devote his attention over the next nine months to making sure that the problems identified on the campus have been corrected and that the new policies, procedures and safeguards that have been implemented to prevent similar issues in the future are adequate and represent best practices.
Mitchell said the job of chancellor has grown far beyond overseeing academics, and he suggested that UNC-Chapel Hill's Board of Trustees look outside academia to consider a corporate chief executive as the next chancellor.
"I think this is the worst academic scandal we've had, but it's nothing we can't overcome," he said.