Dear Commons Community,
Joe Nocera’s column today focuses on Holden Thorp, the departing chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. U.N.C. has long been regarded as one of the top universities in the country and on all academic counts advanced well during Thorp’s five-year tenure. The university went from 19th to 9th in federal research grants. Undergraduate applications rose 43 percent. And, at a time when university budgets are under extreme pressure, Thorp helped keep U.N.C. an affordable public university. However, as Nocera points out, a scandal in the athletics program has forced Thorp to resign, some would say in disgrace.
“But you won’t find a lot of people giving Thorp, 48, a pat on the back. For the last three years, North Carolina was mired in an athletic scandal. And the fact that it took place on Thorp’s watch overshadows everything else he did.
Though it started out as an N.C.A.A. rules-violation investigation, it morphed into an academic scandal when it was discovered that the chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department had long allowed students — athletes very much included — to take no-show classes.
For a university that had long held itself out as one of the “good schools” athletically, the scandal has been humiliating. The N.C.A.A. meted out penalties to the football team. The football coach, Butch Davis, was fired. The athletic director resigned. Even the college accrediting agency got involved.
By his own admission, Thorp was shell-shocked by the experience of dealing with the scandal. As a lifelong North Carolina partisan, he had bought into the myth of the university as a place that harvested genuine student-athletes. The scandal showed him a reality he never before had to face.
It also engulfed him. If you are a college chancellor or president, you can’t delegate when there is a problem in the athletic department. “The governing board, the newspaper, the fans, the faculty, they all expect you to sort it out,” he said. He was spending, literally, half his time dealing with the football team. Yet he had no real experience with the business of college athletics — nor, for that matter, do most college presidents.
He found himself buffeted this way and that. At first, he supported his coach, but then he finally felt he had to fire him. He did so at the worst possible moment: on the eve of a new season. His press conferences dealing with the scandal were, by his own admission, “terrible.” He was, to be blunt, in over his head.”
Sadly, as Thorp departs, his message is that virtually all college presidents are in over their heads when it comes to their athletic departments. They have no background, no experience, that would prepare them for overseeing the $6 billion entertainment complex that big-time college sports has become. In the early 1990s, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a series of reports saying that college presidents needed to regain control of their athletic departments and restore “integrity.” Unfortunately for Thorp, he did not and paid the price.