The Virginia Effect

In rally to support outgoing UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, reflections of U.Va. controversy and lessons about the limitations of that kind of faculty support.

September 25, 2012

A University of Virginia professor who found herself at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this past week might have experienced a powerful sense of déjà vu.

On Sept. 17, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that he would step down at the end of the school year, just his fifth on the job. It was a startling announcement from a home-grown talent who was expected by many to lead the university for at least 10 years.

Since that announcement, faculty and staff members, students, alumni and others have rallied to support him. The Faculty Council and campus governing board passed resolutions asking the North Carolina system’s president to decline Thorp’s resignation, and hundreds of employees and students filled the university’s main quad Friday afternoon to rally in support.

The series of events is remarkably similar to what took place this summer after U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan announced her resignation in June. But there’s one major difference: unlike Sullivan, who was pressured by board members to step down, Thorp appears to be leaving of his own volition. And no measure of faculty support seems likely to make him change his mind.

The past two years of Thorp’s tenure have been burdened by athletic, academic and administrative scandals that, while not of Thorp’s doing, have led to significant criticism of his leadership from sources inside and outside the university. His resignation seems less about a loss of confidence in his leadership ability by campus constituents than his own decision to want to tackle the controversies and then step out of the role.

“It feels great knowing that so many of you want me to stay beyond this year,” Thorp wrote in an e-mail to university faculty, staff and students on Friday following the rally. “But I am still confident that it is in the best interest of the University, my family and me to go back to the faculty next fall.”

The UNC faculty’s response to Thorp’s resignation – and its similarity to what happened in Virginia – shows the impact of the University of Virginia episode on the thinking of faculty members about how to influence the governance process.  But the outpouring of support and the attention it brought to the Virginia faculty’s role in governance also serves as a reminder of a lesson learned at other campuses over the past year. To influence in the governance process, timing and context are everything.

“The nature of the beast is that whoever is at the top, it falls in their laps and they have to take responsibility whether they want to or not,” said Mimi Chapman, a professor at UNC’s School of Social Work and a member of the faculty executive committee. “But perhaps as faculty, students, and staff, maybe we were too late in saying this is complicated, there’s a steep learning curve, and we stand here ready to help clean it up.”

Another Virginia?

The University of Virginia episode earlier this summer caught the attention of much of the higher education world and served as a lesson in faculty power for professors across the country.

Despite the general sentiment across the country that faculty influence is waning, the University of Virginia episode suggested that if a faculty spoke loudly enough and with enough organization, its members could get the powers that be to reverse their decision, particularly at institutions where faculty members still held sway.

It should come as no surprise that faculty members at UNC saw parallels in their situation. Both Thorp and Sullivan faced blame for issues that many said they had not been given enough time to handle. Both were academics who valued slow, deliberate change over reactionary decisions.

Neither Thorp nor Sullivan appeared to enjoy significant public support by faculty members before their resignations. But unlike Sullivan, who had not faced much public scrutiny before her resignation, Thorp’s leadership through the various scandals had been the subject of a constant barrage of editorials, blog posts and online comments.

In an interview with the UNC student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, Jan Boxill, chair of the faculty, said the faculty resolution passed Tuesday was motivated by what happened at U.Va. “I think what it shows is that the faculty can respond in a way that it ought to together,” the paper quoted Boxill as saying.

But unlike U.Va., where the outpouring of support gave board members cover to challenge and ultimately reverse the board’s initial decision, nothing has moved the needle in Chapel Hill.

Timing is Everything

In an interview earlier this year with Inside Higher Ed, Alan Friedman, former chairman of the Faculty Council at the University of Texas at Austin, said that timing of faculty support was a key reason why that university’s often-embattled president, William Powers, was still in his job.

At multiple points in the past two years, when faculty members felt that Powers’s job was under threat from state policy makers and potentially the system’s Board of Regents, the Faculty Council passed resolutions in support of Powers.

That’s not to say that the UT-Austin faculty has been in lockstep with every decision Powers made in that time, Friedman said. It indicated only that professors continued to believe Powers to be the right leader for the institution at that time. Powers has also been backed up by alumni groups.

UNC faculty members said they valued Thorp’s leadership and the perspective he brought to the job. “He has so many ideas and he’s a person who energized people, even in the midst of a very difficult financial time,” Chapman said. But until his resignation Thorp never saw the kind of formal support that Powers has seen.  

Faculty members said there is discussion among them about whether Thorp would still be in his job if they had spoken up and showed support earlier.

Rather than draw parallels to U.Va., it might make sense for the Carolina faculty to look to what happened at the University of Oregon last year, when an outpouring of faculty support for former president Richard Lariviere after it was announced he would be stepping down was also not enough to shift the decision.

In the wake of that decision, Oregon faculty members became much more engaged and organized, eventually approving a faculty union. They sought significant influence on the search process for Lariviere’s replacement and hailed the selection of an academic champion as a sign of that influence.

Faculty members at UNC also hope that the lessons learned in Thorp’s departure will help galvanize faculty members to be more involved in the future on major questions such as athletics, which seemed to give Thorp so much trouble.

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Kevin Kiley

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