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Ask Anything: 10 questions with UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp

Posted February 3, 2009 4:45 a.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 2:03 p.m. EDT


Mr. Thorp, my daughter is currently in the third grade. Going to college is something we hope she'll decide to do. What can we as parents anticipate tuition to be in the next 10 years? At what age/grade do you feel is best for young people to really start deciding what they want to do in life? – Bridget Allen, Timberlake

Before I answer your question, I’d like to thank you for asking this. It gives me a chance to explain why I work in higher education. The fact that you’re hoping that your daughter will go to college and that her life will be shaped by that dream is what gets all of us up in the morning and gets us excited about our work, which is difficult in these challenging times we’re in.

The potential and idealism of the young people of our state and country motivate us to work tirelessly to build an environment where they can follow their dreams. We need the future accomplishments of your daughter and so many like her to get our society where we need to go. So thank you!

As far as tuition goes, predicting the future is very tough, particularly during these extraordinary economic times. What I can tell you is that for the last several years, tuition and fees have risen between 5 percent and 6 percent each year at public colleges and universities nationally.

Costs vary considerably by school, but Carolina has always been committed to affordability, and our tuition is lower than any of our national peers. We’re proud of that and we feel that we are a truly public university in a time when many of our peers are raising tuition dramatically. So while I can’t give you a precise number, I can say with confidence that Carolina will be a very affordable option for your daughter.

As far as what to study, students often exhibit a clear aptitude or interest for a certain field when in high school, or even earlier. I decided on chemistry because I had a great high school chemistry teacher who nurtured and encouraged me. But even students with fairly firm interests continue to explore new areas of study once at Chapel Hill – that’s the value and importance of a liberal arts education, which is such a vital part of what makes our country innovative and different from many others.

I got very interested in art history and jazz history in college, and they have both been important in my life. We expect students to be able to make an informed choice of a major – and a career interest area – by the end of their sophomore year. So this gives your daughter 12 years to make a decision!


Recently, UNC System President Erskine Bowles created a commission and held a forum to discuss the potential need for adopting a hate crime policy. I was curious where you sided on this issue and if you thought there was a need to restrict speech on campus. Thanks! – John Eick (UNC Class of 2011), Chapel Hill

I applaud President Bowles and the commission for devoting time and attention to this topic. With UNC Senior Vice President Harold Martin leading the efforts, I know this process will be conducted thoughtfully as the commission decides what to recommend to President Bowles. Harold is a smart, experienced and careful guy, so this process will be handled well.

Adopting a hate crime policy is not the same thing as restricting free speech. According to FBI reporting guidelines, hate crimes are not separate or distinct crimes, but traditional offenses motivated by the offender’s bias – based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or national origin. That means that if someone threatens violence or assaults someone and they are motivated by the victim’s race, religion or some other trait, the act may be a crime, as well as a “hate crime.”

At Carolina, we’re proud of our tradition of free speech and vigorous public debate. I think the policies and traditions we have around expression on campus have served us well over the years. We strive to be a place where all viewpoints can be expressed and heard. While I believe that our policies already prohibit hate crimes on campus, I welcome the opportunity to take a fresh look at our policies once President Bowles receives the commission’s recommendations.

I want to make sure that we have adequate procedures in place to address hate crimes, which are particularly abhorrent in a community like ours that encourages the search for knowledge through the free exchange of ideas.


Although American students are much brighter and have greater opportunities more now than ever, there is a noticeable decline in recent years of general civility in their behavior. Do you think U.S. campuses should do something to help promote better manners in our public life? – Christine Shia, Durham

At Carolina, we definitely have bright students – they’re getting brighter every year. At the same time, I think almost everyone on our campus – faculty, students and staff – values civility. This is probably one of the friendliest places on earth, but you’re right to be concerned, as there are always folks upset about things, especially in a place like a university campus where expression and ideas are so highly valued.

Folks in jobs like mine get a lot of feedback from students and often create a lot of disagreement, and our objective is to keep the dialogue respectful and constructive. We believe that the tone we set in these discussions will promote civility among all involved. We further foster civility by encouraging students to talk openly and respectfully with each other, even when they don’t agree.

Our student body is about as diverse as any you’ll find – not only racially and socioeconomically, but also in belief, background and experience. If you come to campus and spend a few minutes in the Pit, you’ll see students talking, debating and arguing – but you’ll also see them laughing a lot and treating each other as friends.

We have also tried to foster civility and civic values through our curriculum, which encourages students to connect what they learn in the classroom to life and to people outside it.


Why do you allow illegals (no matter from what country) to attend your colleges? – Michael, Raleigh

Because it’s the policy of the UNC system. Undocumented students are eligible to be considered for admission as undergraduates at all UNC campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill, based on their individual qualifications. They pay out-of-state tuition rates and, under the policy, may not receive any state or federal financial support.

They also compete as out-of-state students for admission. The process is the same as for North Carolinians, but because there are many more applicants and many fewer spaces, the competition is especially tough. The students who make it through this competition have been chosen based on their strengths as students and as individuals.


I have a son who is a Caucasian senior in high school. He has been a straight-A student all through school, despite numerous moves from state to state. He takes all Advanced Placement and honors classes and received 1980 on the SATs. How is it that he could get deferred by UNC and other students with parents that have three times the income of us and students who have lower scores and GPAs have gotten early acceptance? Are white males penalized for their race at UNC? – Mary Ann Schultz, Cary

No, we don’t penalize white males for their race – or for being male, for that matter. We also don’t evaluate students exclusively based on their scores and GPAs. Our admissions committee members read each application, one by one and over and over again, so that they can understand each candidate as fully and as fairly as possible.

Then, in effect, they compare each candidate to all the others, and they offer admission to the ones they think will give us the best entering class. Applying to Carolina isn’t like taking a test, where there’s a fixed set of questions that yield one mathematically precise score for each student. Rather, it’s more like auditioning for orchestra or trying out for basketball.

Having said all this, I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to offer admission to your son. As tough as these decisions are for us to make, they’re much tougher for students to receive. If your son hasn’t done so already, I hope he’ll call our admissions office. I know the people there will do their best to explain why they made the decision they made and to give him good advice about how he can strengthen his chances if he decides to apply again or for a transfer.


The University recently completed a record-breaking fundraising effort, yet now is looking for budget cuts. Why can't the University use the fundraising revenues to plug the budget holes? – Matt, Durham

This is a great question and one that we have to answer a lot. The biggest challenge in running a public university is managing the different revenue sources and making sure that we only use revenue from different sources for designated purposes.

The vast majority (96 percent) of funds raised in the Carolina First Campaign is restricted to certain purposes – for instance, student scholarships and research initiatives – in agreement with our donors. When we receive these gifts, we sign an agreement with donors – called a gift agreement – that designates how these funds will be used.

So we can't just move that money to fill budget holes. And almost all of the rest is designated for use by our deans and top administrators to help with their existing operating costs. So it's not available for use elsewhere.


Why does UNC always need to increase fees and tuition every year? Why can’t UNC decrease vs. always increase? Today's economics are screaming for this from a student or parent point of view. Nobody "needs" a raise, only those who earn it. Those earning raises are ones who over-achieve vs. meet what they are required to do. How about freeze those making $80,000 or less and those making $100,000 or more take a percentage cut? – Austin O., Fuquay-Varina

Last year, there was no tuition increase for North Carolina residents even though our costs increased, and this year it is highly unlikely that faculty or employees will receive a salary increase. In general, however, we need increases because the cost of maintaining what we have has increased each year. That includes not only faculty and staff salary increases, but also resources for students.

One recent example is that we allocated $600,000 to improve advising and academic support, something the students really wanted us to do. Tuition funds are used not only to increase faculty salaries, but also to enhance the quality of what we offer. That could include the number of faculty and courses available, the number of academic advisors, or staff in the learning or writing center.

With regard to the use of next year’s increases, it’s likely that we would have the flexibility to redirect funds that were planned for faculty salary increases to offset the budget reductions; that is, we could use it to maintain some instructional capacity that we would otherwise lose.


Chancellor Thorp, I am an avid follower of football and football recruiting in the Triangle and I have noticed a disturbing trend regarding UNC football. Last year, UNC was granted a waiver by the NCAA to admit a football player that did not meet NCAA requirements for admission in any school. Earlier this year, UNC admitted a football player that failed to meet NCAA minimums for admission in any college and enrolled in a Division 2 school in Georgia. This player was subsequently admitted in time to play for UNC's football team this past fall. In the last week, UNC admitted a football player that failed to meet NCAA minimums over a year ago and then failed to meet NCAA minimums yet again after attending a year of prep school. But this football player was subsequently admitted to UNC after managing to raise his GPA with a THREE WEEK CORRESPONDENCE COURSE. This football player had been previously flagged by the NCAA for an impossible jump in his ACT score that he was subsequently unable to reproduce. My question to you, Chancellor, is "Why do you allow the football program at UNC to continuously admit football players that have no business being in college at all?” – Scott Willard, Yorktown

(Editor's note: The students' names have been redacted from the question.)

It would be highly inappropriate for me to comment on the academic record of individual students. And this question contains some statements that are inaccurate.

The admissions process for student-athletes includes a thorough and comprehensive review. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions and faculty members carefully review the applications. The University only admits students whom it believes have the opportunity to succeed academically.

Of course, they must also meet NCAA standards. Once they are enrolled, students have access to an excellent staff in the Academic Support Center that carefully monitors their academic progress. The professionals involved in the admissions process and academic performance have a great deal of integrity and are committed to the values of our University.

Coach Davis and the University both have a proven track record of academic integrity and success. Coach Davis’ teams at the University of Miami were honored by the American Football Coaches Association for graduating at least 70 percent of the football players in each of his six seasons at Miami. That’s a distinction the Carolina football program has also earned in each of the last five years.


As an alumna and parent of current student, I am concerned over the problem of textbook prices. That is the same problem I had 30 years ago – extremely high textbook prices with relatively low resale value. The excuses still being that there are new editions or course not being taught the next semester. I think that you have the desire to truly do what is best for the University and the student. You cannot fix the entire economy but if you could seriously address this issue that has and is annoying many parents it would be appreciated. My student sold books back to the bookstore for $1 after exams this year. That is all she was offered because of the continuing problem of new editions. You and I both know that in very few cases are these new editions actually significantly different. The professors could be influenced to continue to use the older editions and supplement when necessary through their lectures. Thank you for listening. – Janet Riggsbee, Apex

This question goes to how the textbook market works. Editions do change quickly – for a variety of reasons, some of them quite political, lowering resale value to a fraction of the price paid when new. It’s pure supply and demand – old editions have large supply and small demand.

The University bookstore has to operate to stay in the black – or at least not lose money – so its staff follows standard industry pricing: 50 percent of the new price at buyback when the book will be reused the next semester. If it’s not being used, we access wholesale databases to determine the used price for the book. We then offer to buy the book back, which we will resell to the wholesale company if it’s sold back to us. And, as in the question, if the book is an old edition or out of print, the value will plummet to essentially nothing in most cases.

The UNC system has worked to lower costs to students by promoting either textbook rental or guaranteed buyback on large enrollment courses. At Chapel Hill, faculty members have worked with the bookstore to designate a set of large enrollment courses as guaranteed buyback: the student is promised the highest price at buyback, 50 percent of new, because the department or faculty member has agreed, in advance, to continue to use that title for multiple semesters.

The program has lowered the overall cost to students. But with tens of thousands of students buying any of several thousand textbooks in any semester, some will have, unfortunately, bought a book whose value will have decreased significantly since purchase, as appears to be the case in this question.

However, the question goes beyond just the bookstore supply and demand issues. Faculty can choose to continue using a textbook, even though it may be an old edition. And that’s happening in some courses at Chapel Hill. Faculty and departments are choosing to continue to use textbooks beyond their edition date, and incremental progress is being made in reducing the cost to students.

This is a hot-button, national issue not unique to our campus. Publishers and wholesalers – the entire industry – are being put under a microscope. The upward growth in textbook prices has slowed. Our data show that at Carolina, average unit prices have been stable for the last couple of years.

I expect to see a reduction in prices going forward as publishers shift to lower cost editions and increased use of digital media. We embrace the efforts of the UNC System on this topic and feel that we are making progress, so thank you for your question.


East Carolina University, UNC-Pembroke and a variety of other schools around the state offer online degree programs for the "non-traditional" student. Are there any plans for your school to offer a similar type of program for us working adults? – Joshua Anderson, Fuquay-Varina

Carolina is a leader in providing opportunities for non-traditional students to earn academic credit through distance learning. We were a pioneer in distance learning as early as 1913, when correspondence instruction was introduced, and were among the first campuses in the state to offer online courses at the undergraduate level, through the Carolina Courses Online program, inaugurated in 1997 by the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education.

Because Carolina places high value on residential learning for undergraduates, we don’t offer an undergraduate degree that can be earned entirely online, with the exception of our bachelor of science in nursing completion program. But non-traditional students, including working adults, can meet many of the requirements for undergraduate degrees at Carolina or other institutions through the Friday Center’s distance learning programs.

Courses in these programs are offered in a wide range of subject areas. They are equal in content and academic rigor to classes taken on campus and award the same credit. Instruction is provided under the auspices of academic departments at Carolina, through which the quality expected of Carolina courses is assured.

By combining the versatility of Carolina’s outstanding distance learning courses with classroom study, qualified non-traditional students can pursue the completion of undergraduate degree requirements while working or fulfilling their other life responsibilities. In addition to the Friday Center programs, UNC-Chapel Hill offers 18 professional degree, certificate and licensure programs in nursing, education, public health, journalism and allied health fields.

Details on our online programs are available at: http://distance.unc.edu/ and on the UNC system’s distance education Web site, http://online.northcarolina.edu/, which provides links to online learning opportunities on UNC campuses across the state.

ask anything - dmi