Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Scandal claims chancellor, too

Holden Thorp has submitted his resignation as chancellor of my alma mater, the latest victim of a sports-and-academics scandal that seemingly knows no end. I am saddened by his resignation because I had high hopes for Thorp, 48, who was young enough to lead the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for decades. An alumnus of UNC, a North Carolina native, an acclaimed faculty member and campus administrator, he seemed ideal for the position.

I had hopes that he would restore the relationships with the town of Chapel Hill, faculty and state legislators that had been damaged under Chancellor James Moeser's reign. Moeser, an experienced administrator, was "not from around here" and did not understand North Carolina's political culture or fully appreciate UNC's history and traditions.

When Thorp fired football coach Butch Davis, I was reminded of President Bill Friday's brave and bold decision to eliminate the popular Dixie Classic, which had been a part of a basketball point-shaving scandal. Other Carolina alumni did not see it that way and wanted Davis restored and Thorp's head on a platter. My only criticism was that he should have done it earlier and should not have allowed generous severance packages for Davis and John Blake, the defensive coach who was at the heart of the sports agent scandal.

But the Davis debacle was only the beginning. News media probing uncovered embarrassing problems in the Africa and Afro-American Studies Department. Athletes were signing up for these no-show classes and getting high grades, which kept them eligible to play sports. It's clear, even as this investigation continues, that academic integrity was sacrificed for football (and perhaps basketball) needs. And that's an embarrassment for all alumni.

UNC's faculty has rallied around Thorp and asked university president Tom Ross to not accept the resignation. The professors like having one of their own, a distinguished academician and proud alumnus, running the show. But it seems unlikely that Thorp will remain in his office past June 2013. He is burned out by the crises and the criticism, and who could blame him?

Thorp made some bad decisions. He championed Butch Davis' aspirations — spending millions to close in the end of Kenan Stadium (and destroy the iconic Kenan Field House in the process) — and gave too much leeway to athletics, until the tail was wagging the dog. He trusted other administrators and was not skeptical enough about some hiring and travel decisions. In his heart, it appears to me, he's always been on the side of academics and the faculty, but he had allowed himself to get too caught up in the excitement of college sports.

The whole darned Atlantic Coast Conference and most of the nation has made that same mistake.

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