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.
If Thorp follows through with plans to resign and return to teaching in the chemistry department, there may be dozens to hundreds of desirable candidates, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents colleges in Washington. Many may have more experience in management than teaching, much like Dwight Eisenhower was hired to run Columbia University between managing Allied forces in Europe during WWII and being elected president, he said.
"The general role you play if you're CEO of a corporation or president of a major multi-faceted research university has a lot in common. These are big, complicated organizations that employ lots of people and that can be watched very closely," Hartle said.
A recent ACE survey of more than 1,600 college and university presidents found that more college presidents are coming to the job from outside academia — about 20 percent in 2011 compared with 13 percent five years earlier. Nearly one-third of campus presidents and chancellors came from backgrounds in private business and politics and were never faculty members, the survey found.
Meanwhile, it's not clear if legislators and big donors are begging Thorp to stay. Spokesmen for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the leadership decision is up to Thorp and university trustees. Neither the school's main fundraising office nor the Ram's Club athletics booster association would describe whether big donors opposed Thorp's announced resignation or thought it was time.
Volunteer fundraiser and major donor Roger Perry said the dozen or so contributors he spoke to last week shared regret that Thorp was resigning. The university would be better off if Thorp remained chancellor, Perry said, but he couldn't avoid being ultimately responsible for problems that surfaced during his watch.
"The fact of the matter is, in life we all get dealt good hands and bad hands," said Perry, co-founder of real estate developers East West Partners. "You've got a good man, an extraordinary leader, a 21st Century chancellor of this university who got all of these problems dealt his way. That's obviously why Holden made the decision to step down."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio