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As a child, Holden Thorp, outgoing chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spent a lot of time in a theater run by his mother. He was never big on acting, but he liked the behind-the-scenes action.

Next year he will step off the stage to the technical booth as he leaves UNC to become provost of Washington University in St. Louis, a move the university announces today. The news comes five months after Thorp, whose five-year tenure as chancellor was dominated by the economic crisis and a series of athletic and academic controversies, announced in September that he would step down at the end of the academic year.

At Washington University, Thorp will be responsible for teaching, learning, scholarship and research, and will step away from some of the issues that caused problems for him at UNC, particularly external relations and oversight of nonacademic divisions and Division I athletics (Washington University is Division III; athletics will still fall under Thorp’s purview as provost).

“It is the chance to be in an administrative role where I have the opportunity to work with more of the things that truly excite me,” Thorp said in an interview. “Academic administration, student affairs, international education, information technology and research.”

Thorp’s move is an unusual one in higher education. While chancellors and presidents often move to the presidency of other institutions or back to the faculty, they rarely move down the administrative chain. In picking up Thorp, Washington University acquires a level of experience that’s hard to come by.

“To bring in a person who has held that position, a chancellor or chief executive of an institution, he or she knows the kind of challenges I would be facing on a day-to-day basis,” said Mark Wrighton, Washington University’s chancellor. “So even though he’ll be brand-new to Washington University, I feel comfortable that when I’m traveling he can serve in our community in a way that represents the whole university.”  

Going to Washington University is also a somewhat surprising move for Thorp, who was an undergraduate at UNC and spent almost his entire career there. As chancellor, he often emphasized the values of public higher education, UNC’s history as the country’s first public university, and its goal of serving the state’s needs and mission of providing access for the state’s diverse high school graduates.

Thorp now joins several other prominent public research university presidents who have in recent years stepped away from the top job – often amid controversies and contention with system and state leaders, and many say prematurely – only to find themselves in other prominent administrative roles in the private sector.

That list includes former University of Arizona President Robert Shelton, who left to lead the Fiesta Bowl; former University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, who left to lead Amherst College; and Richard W. Lariviere, who was ousted as president of the University of Oregon and later became president and CEO of the Field Museum.

The fact that all four faced similar pressures, which many say undermined their tenures, but have since been re-endorsed as effective managers, highlights the changing nature of the public university presidency and the growing challenges of the job that aren’t found at many private institutions. Those challenges include public and political pressure, system dynamics, revenue challenges and the presence of big-time college athletics.

“They are getting to be like night and day,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, about the difference between public and private university administrative roles. “There has always been a difference, but it is much greater now.”

AAU President Hunter Rawlings has said in several speeches that five pressures are undermining public university presidents:

Financial Pressure: Because of the recession, slow recovery, and growing state health care and pension costs, higher education budgets have been cut dramatically since 2007.

Ideological Pressures: “There are state leaders who do not believe in public support of public higher education and in some cases demonstrate open hostility.”

“Corporatization”: System and political leadership insist on new financial models for the university, a closer tie between curriculum and jobs and online education.

Flagship-System Tensions: Research universities face competition for scarce resources from other state universities.

Intercollegiate Athletics: "The dominating influence of intercollegiate athletics can undermine academic values and oversight."

Native Son Sets Off

Thorp was named chancellor of UNC in 2008 amid much fanfare. At 43, he was expected by many to be a long-serving chancellor in the mold of William Friday.

Thorp’s agenda when he came into the chancellorship was highly academic. “Our to-do list is nothing less than the greatest problems of our time,” Thorp said in his speech accepting the position. “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.”

But less than a year into his tenure the economy collapsed, and his focus became mitigating the challenges posed by decreased state appropriations and challenges in other revenue streams.

The last two years have been dominated by a series of scandals at the university. First, an investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association found that football players received impermissible benefits from agents. That investigation also uncovered academic fraud by some players. Local media found dozens of instances of academic fraud in the university’s African and Afro-American studies department, which led to a wider report presented in December. The last major controversy came in September, with the revelation that the university’s top fund-raiser created a job for his girlfriend (also the mother of a former basketball player) and that the two took private trips at the university’s expense.

Those scandals have come to dominate local media coverage of the university -- a point that frustrated many at the institution.

Despite a tenure of only five years, the UNC that Thorp leaves is quite different than the one he took over in 2008. Thorp brought in Bain & Company shortly after the start of the economic crisis to evaluate and streamline the university's administrative structure -- a process that is still unfolding and is slated to save the institution more than $50 million a year.

The institution cracked the top 10 in federal research expenditures under Thorp's leadership, and fund-raising exceeded pre-recession levels.

A Fitting Role

When he announced in September that he would be stepping down as chancellor, Thorp noted that he was excited to return to the faculty, to teaching chemistry and doing research. That enthusiasm seems to have been short-lived.

Thorp said he was approached about the Washington University provost position a few months after announcing his resignation. Thorp and Wrighton had worked together in the Association of American Universities, and both got their Ph.D.s in the same lab at the California Institute of Technology, though Wrighton earned his doctorate 14 years before Thorp set foot on campus.

Areas Requiring More Time of Long-Serving Presidents:

Fund raising

Accountability/assessment of student learning

Budget/financial management

Capital improvement projects

Enrollment management

Community relations

Entrepreneurial ventures

Source: The American College President, 2012, ACE

Moving from the presidency to a provost job is rare, but not unprecedented. Thomas G. Burish, provost at the University of Notre Dame, previously served as president of Washington and Lee University. Elizabeth Hoffman, who served as provost of Iowa State University from 2007 to 2012, previously served as president of the University of Colorado system.

Thorp, a chemist by training, said the role of a provost appealed to him. He was never a provost himself, rising from a one-year stint as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences straight to the presidency. Thorp said he has always been interested in the academic side of administration. “I have always thought about how the provost has a lot of tasks that are the ones I’m really interested in,” Thorp said.

Presidents used to be involved in the areas Thorp said he finds interesting – academics, teaching, research and student affairs. But in recent years other concerns, particularly finances, have come to dominate presidents’ schedules.

In a 2011 survey of presidents, the American Council on Education asked president to list the tasks that occupied the largest amount of their time. The top four responses were budget and financial matters, fund-raising, community relations and strategic planning. Only 12 percent of presidents said they were highly engaged in academic issues.

Provosts have historically been seen as the traditional training ground for the presidency, but a large number of provosts say they have no interest in the top job. In a recent survey of provosts conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, only 22 percent said they strongly agreed with the statement that they wanted to be president someday.  

Thorp noted that the fact that he served both above and below provosts gave his a good  perspective on the job. “I told the search committee you won’t find another candidate who understands what it takes to be a great provost from every angle,” he said. “I’ve worked for a provost, and I’ve have one working for me. I know how important the job is and how it can be done well.”

Public Perception

Wrighton said Thorp’s experience and background in public higher education were appealing.

Presidents’ Top Three Constituents Presenting Challenges

Public University Presidents:

1) Legislators/Policymakers

2) Faculty

3) System office/Governing Board

Private University Presidents:

1) Faculty

2) Governing Board

3) Donors/Benefactors

Source: The American College President, 2012, ACE

As chancellor at UNC, an institution that stresses its close ties with state lawmakers, Thorp was often called upon to emphasize the public spirit of the institution, particularly its focus on making sure that all high-achieving North Carolinians could attend the university.

"Today a child of modest means was born somewhere in North Carolina. And despite the long odds of her circumstances, she’s going to excel in public school and have the potential to solve one of these big problems,” Thorp said in his speech accepting the chancellor job in 2008. “She probably won’t want to go to college very far away from her family. And 18 years from now when that happens, we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready to promise that she has a fair shot to get in to Carolina. We’ll be ready to guarantee she can afford to be here. And we’ll be ready to see to it that she gets a world-class education from a great research university right here in her home state.”

Over the past few decades, Washington University has grown in stature and reputation, but has struggled to recruit and support low-income students. Despite an endowment of more than $5 billion, the college generally enrolls the lowest percentage of Pell-eligible students of the country’s top 50 wealthiest institutions. In 2010-11, only 7 percent of the university’s undergraduate student population received Pell grants, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

Wrighton said Thorp might help the institution on that front.

“It is a very important aspiration for us to make sure that Washington University is accessible to a diverse student body regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or any other metric,” Wrighton said. “Our fund-raising campaign, in large measure, is focused on securing resources so that anyone who gains admission can thrive at Washington University independent of family circumstance. Holden can help us by perhaps better articulating why that is important and how to do it. His background in public higher education will also bring diversity to our leadership team, which is important.

Thorp said he is excited to go to a private institution where the focus is more exclusively on academic excellence, rather than serving a broad constituency that includes politicians and board members.

“Washington’s strategic statement is something to the extent of ‘to enhance our leadership today to benefit America and the world tomorrow,’ " Thorp said. “That is unapologetically excellent and academic. Their goal is to be absolutely great in teaching and research. As a public university, there are tasks we have to do. I was excited by the opportunity to go to a place where the focus was so academic that the statement could be as simple as ‘leadership today to benefit the world tomorrow.’ It’s not a page-long mission statement.”

Future of the Public Presidency

After significant controversies at their public universities, Thorp, Martin, Shelton and Lariviere were re-endorsed as competent and effective managers when they were selected for administrative posts by prominent institutions, both inside and outside higher education.

That disconnect raises questions about why these individuals struggled in their roles as public university presidents and whether a different skill set is required to lead public universities than in the past and when compared to their private peers.

Rawlings said the demands of the job haven’t changed, but that the circumstances that public university administrators have to work under have become exacerbated as a result of politics, ideology and financial constraints.

“The same qualities are required in public universities and private universities, those of good academic leadership,” he said. “It’s just that sometimes they are not very well-appreciated in the public arena, and they tend to be better-appreciated in the private arena.”

He points to public university governing boards, where members are often more critical than their private university counterparts, and state politicians, saying they have gotten more involved and are hindering public university presidents from doing the work that will lead their institution to excel.

Whether public universities seek out a different type of leader will become apparent soon. Together, last year and this year represent somewhat of a changing of the guard in public research university leadership. More than a dozen of the AAU’s 35 public universities will have turned over their top spots by the end of the year.

So far, the majority of recent picks have been traditional academic administrators from public universities. The University of Florida aborted its search last month, announcing that its current president, Bernie Machen, would stay on.

But the University of California at Berkeley recently named a private university administrator to its top job. Places like the UNC, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Pennsylvania State University will likely make decisions in the next few months.

Rawlings and others said there is still a number of people interesting in doing these jobs. "Individuals who are presidents or chancellors at public universities are doing an extremely difficult job often with tremendous dedication. And they essentially give up all private life," Rawlings said. "It's quickly becoming close to a thankless job, yet there are people out there who are so committed to doing it well."

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