Appalachian Perspective: H. Holden Thorp and Higher Education in North Carolina

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

In July 2008, Holden Thorp became the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's tenth chancellor. A Carolina alumnus and a former dean of UNC's college of arts and sciences, Chancellor Thorpe has been described as a modern day renaissance man. He is a chemist by profession who holds the prestigious Kenan professorship at Chapel Hill and a musician who loves jazz and rock and roll. We'll talk about higher education in North Carolina, its challenges, and its opportunities from chancellor Thorp's unique perspective.


Dr. Kenneth E. Peacock: Last July, Holden Thorp became the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's tenth chancellor. A Carolina alumnus and a former dean of UNC's college of arts and sciences, Chancellor Thorpe has been described as a modern day renaissance man. He is a chemist by profession who holds the prestigious Kenan professorship at Chapel Hill and a musician who loves jazz and rock and roll. We'll talk about higher education in North Carolina, its challenges, and its opportunities from chancellor Thorp's unique perspective when we return on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective, my guest today is my colleague and my friend Chancellor Holden Thorp from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Holden welcome to Appalachian.

Dr. Holden Thorp: It's great to be here again, thanks so much for having me.

KP: Now, let's just get right to it. You know, two days ago it all happened. The headlines around the nation, I picked up a Charlotte Observer, and there it is, front page, not the sports page, but the front page, "Swish." Great publicity for Chapel Hill, great publicity for North Carolina, how did it feel?

HT: Well, I've got to tell you I've been a Tarheel basketball fan my whole life, being the child of alumni and it's great to win a national championship when you're a fan, but when you're a chancellor, it's even better.

KP: It's even better.

HT: Yeah, it's great. You've won championships before so you know what it's like. But to go out on that court as the buzzer sounds and watch all those streamers coming down, it was just unbelievable. Then when we came home yesterday, we were on the plane, and Woody Durham told me, "You know what Holden as excited as you were last night on the court, when you walk into the Smith Center today, it's going to be even better." We drove down Franklin Street, people were lining the streets, and when we got to the Smith Center, there were 13,000 people waiting for us and it was incredible. I actually brought you something, these were handed out on the floor in Detroit, and I hope you'll wear it with pride. It's a Tarheel championship t-shirt.

KP: I like it! I will wear it with pride, this means a lot. I am very proud of the tarheels and what they did, and I'm going to put this on here In a little bit and let you see I'm on the team with you all the way. Unless you're playing Appalachian, you know I'm pulling for the Tarheels.

HT: Well, we appreciate that for sure. I've certainly followed all of your success in football and congratulations to you on that.

KP: Well, we could play you sometime, you know, Chapel Hill, Appalachian football. Let's just see.

HT: Well we'll have to let our athletic director work that out.

KP: All right, but you really did make all of us in North Carolina very proud. Proud of our great university system and certainly our flagship institution. So, congratulations and keep this party going, keep it going. You know, last September you announced that you were going to be traveling across the state visiting high schools and communities and university campuses, and you've been doing that. So what's the purpose of these trips? What have you learned so far?

HT: Well just like you, we're here to serve the entire state. So, I felt it was important from the beginning for me to be out across the state as much as I could be, and we kind of decided that the best way to start that was to visit the 16 other campuses in the system and meet all of the chancellors at their place. You know we get together at the board of governors meetings and the chancellors meetings, but it's a different thing to come here and see your campus and see what you're doing and I've been so impressed with all of the places that I've had the opportunity to visit. And wow, you've got a great spot here. I've spent a lot of time in Boone in my life, but this is my first time up here to see this place, and you know, hopefully, during my visit, we'll have a chance to talk about some things we can do together. As you know, I think we have a great collaborative spirit that president Bowles has fostered among all the chancellors, and you're all great colleagues, so it's great to get a chance to come up here and see how you do things at Appalachian. I guess the other thing that we've done on these trips, and this is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, is going to visit high schools, ones where a lot of students come to our universities. It's great to be there especially during basketball season but anytime during the year and to hear from these students what they expect from our university and how they're going about their college decision and what the things are that they're thinking about and I usually take my admissions director with me and if he's with me then I'm the second most important person on the trip because the students really want to talk to him, so I give a couple of opening remarks and hand out a few t-shirts, and then we take questions and they're almost all for Steve Farmer, our admissions person.

KP: Holden, right now being in North Carolina, you and I both are facing some challenges in our institutions. Many of those are in common—different numbers involved in it—but still the same kind of challenge that we have. The first one I want to talk about is this economy. I think that both of us can say with great pride that we are proud that we are having to go through this in North Carolina because you hear about other school systems throughout the nation, and you hear about things that they're facing. It's tough on us and it hurts both of us, but the magnitude has not been reflected on my campus, and I don't think on yours, what we hear with some surrounding states and all. But it still hurts. Seven percent that we've given back this year—for me about 8.6 million, that's a much larger number for you.

HT: That's about 35 million for us.

KP: About 35 million, wow. How are you dealing with that, what plans have you put in place? What are you doing?

HT: Well as you know we really faced two different challenges, one was during the year, where we had to do the reversions we didn't plan for and there, we had to just scrape things together and cancel things midstream. We're planning ahead for next year because as you know wer'e still in the middle of the political process of Raleigh. We're trying to kind of get ahead of things, so I've asked all the deans and vice chancellors to cut the equivalent of 5 percent from their state budget. I'm guessing that we'll have to do that permanently for next year. Those are painful decisions, but as all of us who work in higher education know, that the access to higher education and the excellence of our academic programs and for us access to health care as well since we have a major health care system, those are the things that we have worked for 200 years to have, and as painful as it is to make decisions to make our operation smaller, we want to do the things that will protect what we've all worked so hard to have here in North Carolina. And I agree with you that were having a much better time of it here than a lot of other states, you know we're talking of making cuts in the single digits of percent. We've seen states where the cuts to the state budget for higher education are north of 20 percent, and you and I both are very fortunate that were not in that environment, so are all the people that work at our universities. I think, and we've followed what you've done and what a lot of the other system schools have done, and I think that almost every university president or chancellor in the country is communicating very frequently with their community about what we face in this economy and we continue to do that and think about what info we can share to help people understand the decisions we have to make and what they need to plan for.

KP: So we have some challenges to deal with now. Were facing issues of larger classes and perhaps it may delay graduation for some young people because we can't offer the classes that they really need. So it's tough times for us here. Do you see any impact upon that with your admissions with next year's freshman class? Are you going to limit that?

HT: Well we're on track to grow by 30-40 first-year students in the fall. We plan to stick with that. We don't see any changes in the budget that are big enough to force us to want to deviate from that. As you know the legislature typically gives us some enrollment increase money and we want to get that as I'm sure you do, so you know, we've been growing by 30 or 40 first-year students each year, and I think we'll continue that as long as the legislature and the governor continue to fund enrollment growth.

KP: This growth thing goes to this next topic, a challenge for us, and that deals really with growth on campus, in terms of the facilities that you need. On your campus, you have some great exciting plans, I think about Carolina North, talk about that for a little bit.

HT: Well, the university has about 1000 acres that are north of the campus by a little bit and we've spent the last 10 years or so trying to figure out how we would develop that, we see that as a place to really rethink how a living, learning community can be built. And it's really going to be a campus for us, but it's not going to be an undergraduate campus. One of the things we want to do is to move programs there that don't have a lot of interaction with the undergraduates and the undergraduate campus so that we can keep our main campus as the primary place for undergraduate education. So were going to start by moving the law school there. In this economy we're on hold in terms of when precisely we'll be able to begin that but were reaching the end of a process with the town of Chapel Hill to develop an agreement by which well be able to develop the Carolina North site. It's gonna be exciting, we're going to have housing there, and we're going to have recreation and retail, and hopefully it's going to be place that's initially a law school, but ultimately the students will live, do research, and go to classes so that it will be a walkable transit-oriented community and the kind of thing that you get to do if you're building a campus from scratch in todays world.

KP: How far is that from the main campus?

HT: It's only a little over a mile

KP: That's not far at all.

HT: No, and we're going to have a fast bus that will go back and forth and one of the things that we're working on with the town is trying to figure out how we'll do transit there. We have a very special thing in Chapel Hill which is that the Chapel Hill Transit is a collaboration between the town of Chapel Hill and our campus. We subsidize Chapel Hill Transit and as a result of the way we do it everybody gets to ride the bus for free. As we develop Carolina North, we have to rethink how that partnership will accommodate that, and that's one of the most important things we have to work on, but we agree with the town that we want people on the busses and going back and forth and not driving around in their cars. I think we'll be able to come up with a plan that allows us to do that

KP: I can't recall from the budget process, is the planning money in there or did you lose it last year?

HT: Yes, we had money for the law school that was in the budget for this year but it was part of the cash that was being made available for construction and as you know that's been frozen, and it doesn't look like it will be back in this year. Its not in either of the two budgets we've seen so far, the governors budget or the senate budget, so we're on hold there. We do have another project which is a research facility called the Innovation Center that were doing in collaboration with a private partner and we believe that they'll be ready to move forward on that perhaps before we get going with the law school. So it's possible that well ave a shovel in the ground out there in the next 12 to 18 months.

KP: I hope so. Also we both live in communities where we haven't seen a dramatic decrease in housing prices, so that's a challenge for us here to have affordable housing for faculty and staff coming. The salaries that we offer are as competitive as we can provide, but to fit in the market where we are, it's a challenge. I think you just did something unique or have a new plan at Chapel Hill. What is that?

HT: Well it's unique for us, but its probably not very unusual at many of our competitor instutions. Particularly ones that are in high price areas like Santa Cruz or Palo Alto, California, and that is to develop housing for our faculty and staff. We had a gift of land north of town and we have developed a concept plan to build below market housing for our staff and faculty and were still sorting through how we would do that and still working through a few details on the land use with the town of Carrboro. But we're commited to making sure that over the next few years and particularly as the economy comes back and the housing prices start going up again, that we do everything we can to allow our employees and our faculty to live in Chapel Hill, and we've seen our co-workers going further and further away from Chapel Hill over time. Most of our employees live to the west of town in Alamance County, and a lot of our faculty members live in Durham, and that of course means that every one of those folks is getting in a car and trying to get to campus, and Chapel Hill is not very well set up for that. So in addition to developing some below market housing, we're commited with the town that we will develop housing in Carolina North so that certainly a lot of our graduate and professional students will be able to live on campus and that will take a lot of pressure off of the surrounding areas.

KP: You've been working quite well with the town of Chapel Hill and you're expanding. When we do that here, it's very expensive and it takes it off the tax rolls, and we have to deal with that. How are you doing that? How are you working through that in Chapel Hill?

HT: My predecessor, James Moeser, did a lot of work to build good relations with the town of Chapel Hill, and I think we've been able to add to that in the last year and I think that it's really a matter of being able to outline similar objectives so were really working towards a common goal, and Mayor Foy and Mayor Chilton and the town manager are great people to work with. We've really been fortunate. Roger Stancil is the town manager in chapel hill and we knew each other back in Fayetteville and that's made it a lot easier to work together.

KP: Those relationships help a lot, don't they?

HT: It's all about the relationships we have with the town leaders.

KP: Two months ago, in Washington, one of our colleagues, President Gordon Gee of the Ohio State Univeristy delivered the keynote address at the convention. I was not able to attend that, but I have a copy of that. Everybody was talking about it was wonderful and stirring and all. In that, he mentioned about how it's time for us now to have radical transformation on our campuses. It's time for us to re-invent or face extinction. He goes through examples of things that they've done and he finally says, 'This is a defining moment for those of us in higher education.' He gives some examples of things that they've done, but his ending point is one that really caught my attention more than anything else that he said in here. He says that all of us need to marshal our resources and let individuals across the nation know that education changes lives. That education improves communities. That it feeds the world. It sustains art and culture, it cures disease and develops the technologies that will one day free us from dependence on fossil fuels. We need to get that message out, he says, because we haven't communicated that well with our elected leaders and throughout those that are making decisions about what it is that we really do. Look at the great points of pride at UNC Chapel Hill, and other insitutions, too. But you look at what you've done at Chapel Hill and, to me from my perspective, you've done that. You're ahead of that curve. A couple of points of pride I want to just bring out - he mentions in here about young people graduating with debt. UNC Chapel Hill, for eight years in a row, picked by the Kiplinger as the best value in public higher education. Holden, I'm proud that Appalachian's on that list. We're not number one, but we are from North Carolina and that's a great pride for us to be able to say to others, 'I'm from North Carolina and our flagship institution is know throughout as the best - not one of the best - the best value in public higher education for eight consecutive years.' So, I congratulate you on that. I think that puts you on this page of what he's talking about here. The debt they graduate with here, from your insitution and mine, probably does not compare for the debt they would have from other institutions. I think we're sensitive to that. And then, I'd like you to comment a little bit about the Carolina Covenant Scholars Program. You have 1500 that have benefited from that. That's a great program - looking out to change the lives of young people.

HT: It is extraordinary, and I think that we both have a lot to be proud of to be in a state where our state government has supported for 200 years the idea that higher education should be accesible to everyone and I think that our low tuition tradition is important and it really sets us apart. When we think about Carolina and what's different about our university, the fact that we're so affordable and have a reputation of high quality is something we cherish and are committed to trying to protect. I think it's a differentiating factor for us and in terms of the Carolina Covenant, we just recently discussed at the board of trustees meeting some research that we've done showing that students who are in the Carolina Covenant, compared to students the year before that had to borrow money to go to school, that the students in the carolina covenant demonostrably graduate sooner and most importantly are much less likely to take a year off from college and come back, because we all know that if they take a year off and come back, the chance that they'll come back is lower and the chance that they'll succeed when they come back is lower and so we've made some great progress there and we're tracking that very carefully. Part of what Gordon was talking about that we do need to make higher education affordable because, kind of going back to his list of problems, when I was announced as chancellor, I got up and gave my talk to the community, and I said well here's the things we ought to do, inspure students in K-12, cure diseases, end conflict, and somebody said well that's kind of ambitious, how do you know you're gonna do that, and I said well, the university itself can do some of that, but our students when they go out can do a lot more of that. We have in higher education something that's really a multiplier effect, we do things on our campus, one or two people do it, but then our students graduate, and they do it all over the world. I think that's responsible for a lot of what America and North Carolina have to be proud of.

KP: The record shows, certainly that's what Gordon had said about changing lives, providing wonderful opportunities to young people at affordable prices he also mentions the research piece. When you look at the record at UNC Chapel Hill, Oliver Smithies received a 2007 nobel prize for work that has fundamentally changed thinking about genetics and potentially will help millions of individuals in our country and across our world to have healthier lives, talk about that and some of the other great research that's going on at your campus.

HT: We're a huge research university and we have a big hospital, so we have a big academic medical research enterprise, last year our grants for research were $678 million, we're running ahead of that again this year, so we're expecting that to grow north of $700 million for this year, and then as a lot of people know, the federal stimulus package includes a lot more money for research, so we're planning on seeing that grow even more. But more than just counting the dollars, I think if you look at the impact of it in health care and new medicines and quantitative social science research and our understanding of international issues and conflict and of course in the humanities where we have some very strong traditions at Carolina we're a great research university and we're proud of that, and I think that we're also proud of the fact that our students, especially out undergraduates are able to participate in that. When I came to chapel hill, as someone from Fayetteville I had never met a research scientist before, and since I was interested in chemistry, I thought that it made sense that I would become a physician someday, but when I came to Chapel Hill, I met practicing research chemists, and once I found out what they did, I decided that was something that would suit me better as a way to spend my life, and I'm very happy that I was able to make that decision.

KP: You mentioned Rhodes Scholars, tell us about that

HT: Well we had a great year this year. We had two Rhodes Scholars. We have more Rhodes Scholars than any public university at Carolina. And we had three Luce Scholars. The Luce is a scholarship that is like the Rhodes scholarship, only the students go to Asia, not to England. Carolina has more Luce Scholars than any other public or private institution, so we've had an incredible run of success with our distinguished scholars and we're really proud of what our students have been able to accomplish.

KP: You've got the story—Appalachian has a story too, not to the magnitude of Chapel Hill—but I think the challenge for the both of us is to take President Gee's advice and just get that message out there. It's outstanding what that university is doing for our state—for our world, actually—with the research that's there. So you've got it, it's affordable, low debt, taking those who don't have financial resources and making it available for them to go to college, transforming their lives, giving them that opportunity and that hope for a bright future and the research work is something that we all appreciate and are all proud of. Let's talk just a little bit about Holden Thorp, the man. Your children—you have two children, right?

HT: I do, my son, John, is 14 and my daughter, Emma, is 10. They were in Detroit with us, and John and I were in Memphis, so it's been a fun basketball season for the Thorp family. And, of course, a lot of people comment on what an enthusiastic basketball fan she is.

KP: Good, you can't help but catch the spirit when you're in there, and you're winning like that, you just gotta catch it, it just has to happen.

HT: Oh, it's exciting.

KP: Now, down to you, the musician here. I happen to have this picture here that goes back a little bit, and your groups name is The Hang.

HT: These are three guys I went to high school with. That's me there in 1979 I think. I played the guitar in that band, and after I was named chancellor, I received a lot of emails and I heard from both of these guys, and we cooked up the idea of having a reunion and we got together in Carrboro one night and had some of our friends there and played some of our old material.

KP: So you still play some yourself, just for fun?

HT: Mostly just for fun. I play keyboard in a band with a singer who works at the university and four other guys from Chapel Hill, and we play mostly in the summer time when we can play outside and we play at a number of university events. The singer and I did the national anthem a few times at basketball games this year, including before the Georgia Tech men's basketball game, so that was quite an exciting experience.

KP: Yes, it would be.

HT: I've never played for 21,000 people that were standing at attention, so that was quite a heady experience.

KP: Holden, I had the privelege of attending your installation. It was outstanding. Your comments were great. Your guest, Alan Greganus from my hometown was outstanding, he always likes to walk a little on the edge, you did a great job that day, and I was very proud to be there. One thing that you did that I'd like for you to do again today, is the "History of the University of North Carolina abridged". I think it's 119 words and you captured the entire history of the university, which is a rich full history and it can't be done in 119 words, but you did it, and you caught it and I think it shows a sense of humor and some creativity, and it shows an art side coming out. Do it again for us.

HT: As you point out, we do have an extraordinary rich history, and if you got up and told the whole thing, you wouldn't have a lot of time to talk about the future of the university, so I was trying to come up with a way to get the important points across and still leave some time to talk about my vision for Carolina and what we wanted to accomplish. So, here we go, this is the "History of the University of North Carolina abridged":

"Our founders went down to my hometown of Fayetteville and convinced the general assembly to charter the university. Davey hitched his horse in Chapel Hill and we were off. Hinton James left Wilmington on foot. He turned left at Benson. Eventually he made it to class. We closed the university, and then we opened it again. Frank Graham went to the US Senate. Before he left, Mrs. Graham made cookies. Bob House played the harmonica. Bill Friday, Bill Aycock and Fayetteville's own Paul Dixon got the speaker ban law overturned. We admitted women and we integrated. James Taylor went to Abbey Road Studios and recorded Carolina in my Mind. Michael Jordan made the shot. And here we are."

KP: Thank you very much for that. That abridged history of UNC Chapel Hill makes history for all of us, but you're gonna make more history. I look forward to working with you. Thank you for being on Appalachian Perspective. I'm proud to have you as my colleague and my friend. Now one more thing about this championship here, tell me the impact. How much are you gonna sell from this?

HT: Well, we don't know, but I can tell you the t-shirt shops on Franklin Street are having a good week. In 2005 we didn't see a huge bump in enrollment. I think people think of Carolina as a basketball school, so if they're interested in basketball they're gonna come to Carolina. But I think where we do see an economic impact is in the sale of the merchandise with our logo on it. We're proud of the fact that at Carolina 100% of the revenue that we get from the sale of our licensed merchandise goes towards academic scholarships.

KP: Well, Holden, we are proud of you we are proud of UNC Chapel Hill. Thank you for being here today. Thanks for bringing me my championship t-shirt. I will wear it with great pride.

HT: Thank you, Kenneth. Thanks for being such a great colleague. It's great to be here.