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UNC chemistry professor elected next chancellor

Posted May 8, 2008 12:37 a.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2008 11:07 a.m. EDT

— The University of North Carolina Board of Governors on Thursday elected H. Holden Thorp the 10th chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thorp, 43, a chemistry professor and the dean of the school's College of Arts and Sciences, will take charge July 1, replacing Chancellor James Moeser, who's retiring after eight years in the position.

"This is the best job in America in higher education," said Thorp, one of more than 100 applicants from across the country.

At a salary of $420,000 a year, he will also become one of the youngest university leaders in the country. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education's most recent survey of college and university presidents, just 6.4 percent reported their age as 49 or younger.

University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles said Thursday there wasn't a doubt in his mind that Thorp is the best person for the position.

"He is the right leader for today and the right leader for tomorrow," Bowles said. "He personifies what Carolina is all about – he is a remarkable teacher, a brilliant scientist, a successful inventor and entrepreneur and a respected administrator."

Thorp is a1986 undergraduate of UNC, earning his bachelor of science degree, with highest honors, in chemistry. He earned a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and did postdoctoral work at Yale University.

He also served as an assistant professor for two years at North Carolina State University before moving to UNC. He became a full professor in 1999 and was named Arts & Sciences dean last year.

Of his many goals for the school, Thorp said his top is that the university "do an even better job at being a place where people with great ideas can take risks," saying it is getting harder to take risks, particularly with cuts in federal funding for biomedical research.

"And of course, most of the great breakthroughs that we have come from things that people do that are a crazy idea that they probably shouldn't have tried," he said. "And we need to be a place where that happens."

A native of Fayetteville, Thorp graduated from Terry Sanford High School. As a teen, he often acted in plays at Fayetteville's Cape Fear Regional Theater, and at 16, was the northeast Rubik's Cube champion. As an adult, he is an accomplished musician who plays jazz bass and keyboard.

In his career at UNC, he has held several positions, including director of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and chairman of the chemistry department. He holds 19 issued or pending U.S. patents and has published more than 130 scholarly papers.

Thorp is "as true blue as a Tar Heel as they come," Bowles said.

And Thorp, himself, described how his father would sing "Hark the Sound," the Tar Heel alma mater, at bed time. It was usually preceded, he said, by a chorus or two of "Aye! Zigga Zoomba," a Tar Heel fight song.

"He loves the university so much," his mother, Bo Thorp, said. "How wonderful to have a job where you really want to be. Not everybody has that.”