Chapel Hill Dynasty

At first glance, the selection of the new chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill seems ideal. Indeed, it appears as though Holden Thorp was not just groomed for the job, but created for it.

Thorp has a long track record as a brilliant scientist, and as an outstanding educator who relates extremely well to students. He has also held several lesser administrative posts on the Chapel Hill campus, including the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. There is no reason to think he did not perform them admirably.

Thorp also bleeds “Tar Heel Blue”–he is a third-generation alumni. He is young, clever, and charismatic. With his photogenic wife and children by his side, it is hard to imagine a more perfect individual to represent and run the state’s flagship university.

But the fact that he has ample leadership ability tells us little about direction he will lead the university to. None of the above qualities and qualifications (and they are indeed too many to list here) tell us how he will react to controversy, what ideas he is likely to promote, or what core beliefs he holds.

The probable direction of Thorp’s leadership can be gleaned, however, from his words and past decisions. In his speech accepting his election to the position by a unanimous vote of the university system’s Board of Governors, Thorp referred to outgoing chancellor James Moeser as “my mentor,” and he also rose dramatically under his predecessor’s administration. It therefore seems apparent that change is not in the air at Chapel Hill – the transfer of power from Moeser to Thorp appears almost dynastic. The same policies and ideas that dominated under Moeser for the last eight years should continue to dominate for Thorp’s tenure as well, and given that he is only 43 and has powerful attachments to UNC, that is likely to be a long time.

Whether that is reason to cheer or cringe is a matter of perspective.

One policy of Moeser’s (and one favored by system president Erskine Bowles) that is almost guaranteed to continue under Thorp is the university’s expansion into research and development. Bowles even said he wanted a scientist in the chancellor’s position for that very reason. Thorp has earned 19 patents, and has even created a private company to exploit the commercial possibilities of his research.

A comment made in his acceptance speech indicates that Thorp has a remarkably expansive view of academia, where he has spent his entire adult life, that goes far beyond Bowles’ oft-repeated suggestion that the university system drives the state’s economy. He nearly seems to regard the university as the center of the universe:

“Our to-do list is nothing less than the greatest problems of our time: Cure diseases, and get those cures to all the people who need them. Find and invent clean energy. Inspire students in our public schools. Feed seven billion people. Describe the world, and replace conflict with understanding.”
Another line from the acceptance speech indicates that Thorp is most comfortable when government has considerable influence on economic activities: “There’s one idea that’s even better than a research university and that’s a public research university.”

Comments from previous addresses as well as his recent remarks suggest that Thorp is perfectly at ease with the current political environment at Chapel Hill. He prefers politically correct terms: when asked about Governor Easley’s decision to defy a ruling by the state’s attorney general concerning public college attendance by “illegal immigrants,” his “no comment” reply was preceded by a pointed switch to the more politically correct designation “undocumented immigrants.”

Thorp also seems likely to make no attempt to counter the emphasis on group-identity pressure politics at Chapel Hill. He seems to favor setting numerical goals for inclusion according demographic groups, rather than regarding each student or employee as a distinct individual. In a July, 2007 speech to the board of directors of the General Alumni Association (of UNC), Thorp had this to say: “[W]ith regard to diversity, the college, like most of our peers, is not doing as well as we should at matching the demographics of the faculty to the demographics of the students.”

He might also encourage demographic groups to regard themselves as victims of an oppressive society, as illustrated by his leadership as chairman of the 2005 Carolina Summer Reading Program Book Selection Committee. The book chosen that year was Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story by about racial strife in rural North Carolina, centered around the 1970 murder of a black Vietnam veteran.

Also at the recent press conference, when asked about political extremism in the classroom and on the campus, Thorp suggested that incidents of inappropriate political activity by teachers are much rarer than perceived. However, the Pope Center regularly covers such activities (here, here, and here), and is often informed of others.

The above examples suggest Thorp will not alter the present left-leaning political climate at Chapel Hill. Bowles regularly states that North Carolina’s tuition and financial aid system serves wealthy and low-income students well, but does a much poorer job of providing access to middle-income students. It seems that another constituency, this one political instead of financial, is being denied full access as well.