Thorp: A strong choice, despite baggage
On Sept. 13, 2012, following the announcement of Provost Ed Macias’ retirement, Student Life ran a staff editorial on Macias’ accomplishments and our hopes for his replacement. In that editorial, we recalled that under Macias’ tenure, the seven-minute passing rule was extended to 10 minutes and the disparity between men’s and women’s pay was greatly reduced—and in three schools, women’s salaries now exceed men’s. Because the deans of all seven schools report to the provost, we also called for an interdisciplinary-minded hire for the role of the University’s chief academic officer. On Feb. 18, 2013, after a nearly-five-month search, Washington University announced its new provost for the 2013-14 academic year, Holden Thorp.
On paper, Thorp seems an unlikely candidate for provost mainly because of his impressive background. As the current chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he will take a positional demotion from chancellor of a top-30 public university to serve as the provost of a top-15 private university. He will transition from an undergraduate student body of more than 18,000 to one a third of its size. He will move from a culture of Division I athletes to a spirit of Division III student-athletes at a place where academics supersede athletics and the last poetry slam hosted a larger student audience than the last sporting event.
But perhaps that’s why he’s leaving. In the midst of an NCAA investigation into the questionable academic practices surrounding UNC-CH sports, maybe Thorp hoped to distance himself from tarnish by association. He had already declared his intent to hang up his chancellor’s robe and return to the chemistry classroom effective June 30, 2013. With Wash. U.’s announcement, on July 1 he will exchange his Carolina blue for red and green and will trade in fears of athletes receiving credit for nonexistent African and Afro-American Studies classes for fears of engineers installing keyloggers on teaching assistants’ computers. At least at Wash. U., Thorp doesn’t have to worry about the alumni donor fallout from NCAA sanctions.
The Wash. U. way may prove jarring to Thorp at first. Here, community is built around the arts and sciences. Here, students compete for academic scholarships rather than athletic ones. Here, as provost, Thorp will have ample opportunity to embrace his inherent multidisciplinary nature.
Though he received a doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, Thorp is a veritable renaissance man. He was reared in the theater, at 17 studied guitar at Berklee College of Music, once won a regional Rubik’s Cube-solving competition and is now an accomplished jazz musician and pianist. Thorp obtained his doctorate in three years, rather than the typical five, and became one of the youngest chancellors in the United States when he took the UNC-CH office in 2008. He holds 12 patents, co-founded a pharmaceuticals group and has published 130 scholarly articles. He also maintains an active digital presence on Twitter (@chanthorp) and on his UNC blog. While we had hoped the next high-ranking University official would come from a non-hard-science discipline following the appointment of Jen Smith, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, to dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Thorp’s diverse background and commitment to the arts gives us hope that his Wash. U. leadership will one day be held with the same reverence as Macias’. We’re pro-Thorp and hope soon his Twitter handle will be, too.