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BIG CITY: A dark day in a dark era

By Kirk Ross

Just before the assembly started, the rain let up, sparing the procession of faculty making their way to the western edge of campus, where the chancellor and a resolution in support of him waited.

Holden Thorp led off the emergency meeting of UNC’s Faculty Council, telling those assembled that he appreciated their effort to convince him to stay. He reminded them that the decision made this week was his and that at the end of this year his plan was to rejoin the chemistry department.

Looking out at the hundred or so tenured souls, he said he made his decision and looked forward to when he’d once again be sitting among them. When he finished, the crowd stood up and applauded with enthusiasm. Thorp hugged Faculty Council chair Jan Boxill, basked for a brief moment in the warmth of Carolina’s academy, and left the building.

There wasn’t a lot of debate over the resolution, which spelled out the faculty’s desire to have him stay on. Members of the council executive committee spoke in favor, reminding those assembled not just of Thorp’s achievements but that he was one of them.

Jackie Overton of the Employee Forum and Jonathan Howes, representing retired faculty members, read similar resolutions of support from their respective groups.

When Boxill opened up the floor for anyone, only a few got up to speak. Anthropology professor Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld said the faculty has to join in the struggle to keep athletics from overwhelming the academic mission.

Former faculty council Chair Sue Estroff challenged her colleagues to do more in support of Thorp. The man Estroff sometimes sparred with, former Chancellor James Moeser, told the faculty he was proud of their actions and insisted that the Carolina Way is not a myth. English professor Jane Thrailkill said the school should not buy into the idea that someone from the faculty can’t run a major university, that the job is too complex or demanding for anyone but a career administrator.

The vote on the resolution was anti-climactic and unanimous.

The faculty, employees and students have all gone on record in support of their chancellor. Their actions take some of the sting out of the loss of someone at the helm of Carolina who was so deeply a part of the university, but they don’t change the basic facts that led Thorp to decide to step down.

His departure was not, as some have suggested, predestined when he fired the football coach whose staff cheated or even after the grades scandal that tarnished the sheen of academic integrity so often lauded from the South Building.

Thorp was weakened by those scandals, but he could have survived.

What toppled the chancellor was something much more pervasive and malignant in Carolina’s culture and, sadly, in the culture of far too many centers of higher learning. Carolina has become caught up in building an empire rather than a university. The race for development dollars and the courtship of multi-million-dollar donors has all but eclipsed the mission of light and liberty.

The pursuit of top faculty and research dollars and the nationwide arms race among universities in faculty recruitment has been used to justify driving tuition to heights that those who built the place would never have imagined. The only thing that keeps Carolina at the top of best-buy lists is that its peers have pursued the same.

The loss of a good person as chancellor is certainly a dark day in the history of the place, but we are living through an era of darkness – an era where year after year thousands of students leave Chapel Hill burdened with crushing debt. An era where a university of, by and for the people of North Carolina has become increasingly exclusive and detached from the struggles and aspirations of the ordinary people of this state.

The Carolina Way may not be a myth, but it is heading in that direction. And it will take more than one chancellor and a few resolutions to turn that around.

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