Holden Thorp: Presidents ill-equipped

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Outgoing North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp said Friday that presidents are often ill-equipped to run big-time sports programs and should give more control to their athletic directors.

Speaking during a campus forum about balancing athletics and academics, Thorp said the "presidential-control idea has sort of gotten away from us" and that the model hasn't prevented corruption or the money-driven culture of college sports.

"Either we put the ADs back in charge and hold them accountable if things don't work," Thorp said, "... or let's be honest and tell everyone when we select them to run institutions that run big-time sports that athletics is the most important part of their job."

Thorp led UNC through a two-year NCAA investigation of the football program, which later led to larger questions about misconduct in an academic department that benefited scores of athletes dating back to at least 1997. Thorp will step down at the end of June to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis.

Thorp, who became chancellor at his alma mater in 2008, was candid Friday in talking about a president-driven oversight model that he said just doesn't work. He spoke of college administrators who spend most of their time in labs, libraries and classrooms only to find themselves in charge of a school with headline-grabbing and money-printing sports programs despite having little or no experience with athletics.

"It was supposed to produce less corruption," Thorp said. "It was supposed to make it easier to make rules. It was supposed to reduce the escalation of money in college sports. And it was supposed to give academics the ability to change college sports. It's almost hard to keep from laughing when you say these things because obviously it hasn't worked."

In Thorp's case, the former UNC chemistry department chairman joked that his experience with athletics consisted largely of playing defensive tackle for a middle school team. As he interviewed for the chancellor job, he said the search committee asked just one question about sports during interviews -- which he thought was a typical tale for colleagues across the country.

Thorp said he "certainly didn't know enough to run college sports" when he was first hired. Yet during the height of the NCAA probe that began in 2010, Thorp's daily duties became all athletics, all the time.

"After five years and all that I've been through, I know enough to run college sports now," he said. "But I think we can all agree it wasn't exactly a smooth road to enlightenment."

Interim Dartmouth president Carol Folt was named Thorp's successor last week. She'll start work July 1.

"I'm saying a lot more today than I would say if I wasn't going to Division III to be a provost," Thorp said. "My successor will be here soon and she will not want to say anything that makes the NCAA upset or cause the fan base to start an email campaign to the board (of trustees), which shouldn't work but it does. But hopefully my saying these things will make it easier for her."

UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham supported Thorp's suggestion that ADs take more control over athletics issues, then report to the school president.

"We're closest to it, we work on it every day," Cunningham said. "That's our profession, and willing to be accountable for our daily decisions is something we embrace. If we can get some of those decisions out of the president's office, it should reduce hopefully the turnover in presidents and chancellors of some of the greatest universities in the country."

Thorp was addressing a panel that included Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, a UNC alumnus; and Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities. Rawlings said the panel will eventually offer recommendations to the school for balancing academics and athletics, which he said he hoped would be useful to other schools facing similar challenges with prominent sports programs.

Speakers at the event included Cunningham and Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player under Mike Krzyzewski and ESPN basketball analyst.

Afterward, Thorp sounded eager to leave behind the culture of big-time sports.

"I'm proud of what I've done for Carolina athletics," Thorp said. "I think it's great for the university and it's here to stay. But I'm also ready to take a break."

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