On 8 May after a six-month search by a 21-member search committee, 43-year-old chemistry professor H. Holden Thorp was named Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The search committee was unable to find anyone else nationally or internationally that could match Thorp’s promise in leading the university.
Thorp is a pretty amazing guy for any age, having already achieved full, distinguished professor status, chair of the chemistry department, dean of arts & sciences, started a couple of companies, directed and rejuvenated the university’s aging planetarium, and directed a $17 million fundraising program for a new science building. And now he’s on to serving as Chancellor, defined as:
A high-profile job that draws scrutiny from 28,000 students, along with parents, professors, politicians, sports fans and more than 250,000 living alumni, not to mention millions of state taxpayers. The leader of the university must have the ability to run a sprawling public university with a medical complex and an annual budget of $2.4 billion. The chancellor raises money from donors and acts as the public face of a treasured state asset.
After seeing major universities led by career administrators or individuals with a pure business background, it is refreshing to see a young award-winning scientist and educator take on the job of leading such a great university. In 2002, long before UNC’s Oliver Smithies shared last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Thorp said this in the university’s alumni publication (PDF here):
“I think part of the general picture of Carolina, the picture that comes from the Charles Kuralt/Frank Porter Graham kind of picture of the University, doesn’t include science,” he said. “I’m not against that picture; there’s just a missing piece. We want to raise the perception of UNC as a great science university in the minds of the public, and getting them to understand what the fundamentals of scientific research are all about is an important part of that because a lot of the areas in which UNC excels are in fundamental science.”
At 43, Thorp stands to make a few decades of impact on the direction of this flagship public university and the value of science to citizens and students who are not scientists themselves. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of speaking with him but I can say that even as far back as 2002, he groks the science communication thing:
Thorp believes a diverse group of faculty in fields such as journalism, communication, education and technology can contribute to and benefit by helping the center design its displays and messages. And he understands that making the public “science savvy” isn’t limited to giving them a glimpse of the research that goes on in UNC research labs.
Of equal importance will be communicating the social and ethical aspects of that science. “How many people actually know what this whole stem cell thing is about?”" He wants them saying, “‘I’d better understand this because I’ve got to think about whether I want people to know my DNA sequence, and whether I should be scared about that or not.’ Ultimately you want to have scientists who can understand where people’s fear comes from. It’s only when you have the mixture of the two that you can have people working together to come up with solutions.”
That’s what Thorp said six years ago.
Yes, I’m partial to Thorp being a scientist but I think that his diverse interdisciplinary background will foster a robust vision for UNC and nationally for the future of higher education.