News & Observer | | Holden Thorp named UNC chancellor

Published: May 08, 2008 07:53 AM
Modified: May 08, 2008 03:35 PM

Holden Thorp named UNC chancellor

Holden Thorp smiles as he is introduced as the next chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill. He is currently the dean of the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

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CHAPEL HILL - Holden Thorp, a chemist and current dean of UNC-Chapel Hill's College of Arts & Sciences, will be the university's next chancellor.

The UNC system's Board of Governors approved Thorp's hiring this afternoon. He succeeds James Moeser, chancellor since 2000, who retires later this year.

Addressing the Board of Governors after the vote, Thorp said he wanted the university to do more research and to be a place where people are not afraid to think creatively.

"I would like Chapel Hill to be an even better place for people to take risks," said Thorp, 43. "Most of the great breakthroughs come from crazy ideas that probably shouldn't have been tried."

Thorp, a Fayetteville native, is a 1986 graduate of the university. "I only sent in one college application," he said. "Thank goodness I got accepted."

A member of the UNC faculty since 1993, he has been involved in a number of high-profile academic initiatives and took over as dean of arts and sciences last year.

"He is the right leader for the Carolina of today, and the right leader for the UNC of tomorrow," said UNC System President Erksine Bowles.

But Thorp has never run a university, and he represents a significant departure from past leaders of the state's most well-regarded public institution. Moeser headed the University of Nebraska prior to coming to Chapel Hill. Moeser's predecessor was Michael Hooker, who led the University of Massachusetts before taking the helm at UNC-CH.

Thorp's background is also a different from his predecessors. Hooker was a philosopher, Moeser, a musician. Thorp is a well-regarded chemist, with a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology and postdoctoral work at Yale University.

"I don't think it was a philosophical shifting of gears," said Roger Perry, chairman of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. "We did an exhaustive national search, and it became very obvious and clear to us that we had an incomparable package here at home."

That background may serve Thorp well as he leads the university in its pursuit of Carolina North, a planned research campus a mile north of the main campus where officials hope to mix public research with private industry.

In many ways the classic lab rat, Thorp also is often described a Renaissance man. He holds a prestigious Kenan professorship at UNC-CH but also is a musician who dabbles in jazz and rock and roll. As a youngster, he won a regional competition involving the Rubik's Cube, that multi-colored block puzzle all the rage in the 1980s.

For the past decade or so, Thorp has steadily climbed the university ranks, playing a role in the hot academic issues of the time.

In 2001, he was part of a faculty delegation who traveled to Qatar when the university was considering establishing a branch campus in that Middle Eastern nation. Thorp liked the idea and took part in a seminar in which students grilled him on his opinions.

In 2002, Thorp became head of the Morehead Planetarium, which was then fighting to increase visitors. Thorp shepherded the aging planetarium's transition to a full-blown science center, designed to show off the university's research. He loves science and wants school kids from across North Carolina to think it's cool as well.

Under Thorp's leadership, the planetarium also brought back the rock-and-roll laser light show. For 12 weeks in 2004, the Morehead offered laser shows featuring music from Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Metallica, among others.

During his tenure, the center also created "DNA: The Secret of Life," a 30-minute film for science museums that is permanently installed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and playing at science museums throughout North America.

In 2004, Thorp was once again knee-deep in a weighty academic issue, this time as chairman of the summer reading book selection committee.

UNC-CH's summer reading program brought national headlines in 2002 when the committee selected a book examining Islam, with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 still fresh in the public consciousness.

Under Thorp's leadership, a committee of students, faculty and staff culled through 200 titles to select "Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story," by Timothy Tyson, an examination of racial tension in 1970 in Oxford following the killing of a black man, in broad daylight, by a white man.

In July 2005, Thorp became chairman of the chemistry department.

He also helped raise $22 million in private funds for the Carolina Physical Science Complex, the largest construction project in UNC-CH history.

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