Chapel Hill, N.C. — As he prepares to leave the school where he has attended classes and worked for half of his life, Chancellor Holden Thorp says he believes his often rocky tenure leading the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has prepared the school for any future difficulties.
Thorp officially steps down as chancellor on June 30, but he said he plans to use some accrued leave time in the coming weeks. In July, he moves to St. Louis, where he will become provost of Washington University.
"Working in higher education is the greatest career in the world," he said Friday. "You're in an environment where knowledge is created."
The 48-year-old jokes that photos in his office show a man with much less gray hair, one who was still early in his five-year tenure as UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor. A series of athletic, academic and administrative scandals in recent years played a role in that, but he now prefers to see the silver lining of what has been learned rather than cloud that hung over the university for so long.
"We're more wide-eyed and objective than we were before," he said, noting that such vigilance and honest self-evaluation should help head off future problems.
UNC-Chapel Hill's response to recent student protests over sexual assaults on campus is evidence that administrators are quicker to respond now to potential trouble. A special task force is reviewing the school's policies and procedures this summer to make recommendations for improving how sex assault cases are handled.
"These are hugely important issues in higher education," he said, adding that he believes the school has "handled the crisis well."
By contrast, he said, trying to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving scandal that swirled around the football team – growing from improper relationships with agents to revelations of bogus courses and forged grades in one academic department – proved challenging.
"There were a lot of things that happened at Carolina that we didn't get on top of as quickly as we should have," Thorp said. "There were a lot of times when we were acting before we really knew the depths of all of the problems and a lot of times when we told ourselves, 'Oh good, we've gotten to the end of this,' and it turned out the onion had a few more layers."
Thorp said the complexity of running a major public university – "We've got rule books coming out of our ears," he said – and the complexities of major college athletics collided, and he and others were caught in the wreckage.
Overseeing college athletics should be left to athletic directors, he said, because they have more experience in that realm and are best suited to ensure that rules are followed.
"(It) has created a distraction in the amount of time and capital – personal capital – that (presidents and chancellors) have to invest in athletics," he said.
Thorp said the hiring of football coach Larry Fedora, athletic director Bubba Cunningham and new chancellor Carol Folt, who takes the reins at UNC-Chapel Hill in July, will help the school and its supporters put the scandals behind them and move forward.
"Over time, people will start to think about the future," he said.