CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — After a two-year saga of scandals, the country's oldest public university is in the limelight for another reason: Will the campus leader trying to clean up the messes step down next summer, despite pleas to stay?
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp has given no indication he will change his plans to resign in June, and the campus Board of Trustees has said it will move forward looking for his replacement. But the calls for him to stay have increased, from groups representing 29,000 students, 12,000 employees and 3,500 professors to the powerful trustees. But Thorp has made clear he loves leading a university that last year climbed into the Top 10 in attracting federal research funding.
"It's a plum job," Thorp, 48, said in an interview last week. "Putting on that Carolina blue robe and going out there at graduation or getting up like I did (at a vigil for a slain student) and saying, 'I'm Holden Thorp and I'm the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,' is an awesome responsibility and it's an unbelievable opportunity."
His tenure, however, has been plagued by scandal. It was revealed that football players accepted gifts from agents, which led to the abrupt firing of coach Butch Davis and NCAA sanctions. Further investigation of the team uncovered no-show classes and instructors who didn't teach. This month, the university's top fundraiser and the mother of former Tar Heels basketball star Tyler Hansbrough, also a fundraiser, resigned after it was revealed they may have used donated money to pay for personal travel.
"A president can survive a football coach scandal. A president can survive a fundraising vice president scandal. A president, however blameless, cannot survive a pattern of scandals," said former George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg. "When the press starts to use the phrase 'the latest scandal' about your university, it's time to call a press conference and return to one's first love — teaching and research."
The job of heading the Chapel Hill campus remains one of the best in higher education despite Thorp's struggles, said Trachtenberg, who works for a Washington-based higher education executive search firm after spending 30 years as president at GWU and the University of Hartford. Thorp's resignation comes on the heels of similar turnover at major public universities in Virginia, Louisiana, Oregon, Illinois and Wisconsin, where presidents quit or were forced out in the past 15 months.
"It's not a job for people who are frail," Trachtenberg said.
University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan rallied similar support from students and faculty, but unlike Thorp, she was ousted in a secretive move by the school's governing board. She was ultimately reinstated after the outcry.