CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Holden Thorp is packing up after nearly five years as chancellor at the University of North Carolina, preparing for his next job as provost at Washington University in St. Louis.
It’s no accident he’s leaving a school that regularly plays for national titles at the NCAA’s highest level to one that competes at its lowest.
Thorp’s done with big-time college sports, and if he had his way, other school presidents would be finished with them, too. Many leaders just don’t have the training to handle a major athletics program, he argues.
It’s a message that may resonate with administrators at institutions that have lately felt the sting of scandals tied to athletics.
“I feel great compassion for my colleagues that are getting caught up in this,” Thorp said. “My main concern in this, and the reason I’ve been saying what I’ve been saying, is I’m worried about the people who are my friends. But I’m also worried about the institutions that are having their leadership diverted in this way.”
Thorp will resign from his alma mater with its 18,000 undergraduates at the end of June to work at Washington (about 6,000 undergrads) after spending most of the past three years dealing with a withering array of NCAA and athletics-related problems. They dominated his time, despite the fact that at least when he took the job he was a novice in the business of athletics.
He’s come to the conclusion that presidents should step aside and let their athletic directors handle the job.
“Either we put the ADs back in charge and hold them accountable if things don’t work,” Thorp said in April during a campus forum, “… or let’s be honest and tell everyone when we select (presidents) to run institutions that run big-time sports that athletics is the most important part of their job.”
Sports have certainly created enormous problems for several top college administrators.
Ohio State University president Gordon Gee announced he was retiring Tuesday, after The Associated Press last week published remarks he made mocking Notre Dame, Roman Catholics and the Southeastern Conference during an athletic council meeting in December. Previously, during a 2011 scandal, Gee joked he was worried then-football coach Jim Tressel, who admitted to breaking NCAA rules, would dismiss him.
Rutgers University president Robert Barchi and the school have faced fierce criticism over the hiring of incoming athletic director Julie Hermann, who was accused of being verbally and emotionally abusive by players on the Tennessee volleyball team she coached in the 1990s. That came after the school fired men’s basketball coach Mike Rice for throwing balls at his players and berating them in practice. In the aftermath of Rice’s ouster, former athletic director Tim Pernetti also resigned.
At the University of Miami, president Donna Shalala has spent nearly two years dealing with an NCAA investigation of allegations that booster Nevin Shapiro provided thousands of dollars in improper benefits to Hurricanes athletes. She’s publicly criticized the NCAA’s probe, saying the school had been “wronged” and that the programs have “suffered enough” through self-imposed sanctions.
And, at Penn State University, former president Graham Spanier faces charges of perjury and concealing child sex abuse allegations involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in a scandal that ended the long tenure of Joe Paterno and led to unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA.
Murray Sperber, a critic of commercialization in college sports, wonders why presidents don’t stumble more often when it comes to overseeing a realm that is often foreign to them. Most come from the academic side and make their way through the administrative ranks that exist as separate worlds from athletics on a college campus, he said.
“If you put me in charge of the Atomic Energy Commission, I would get in trouble,” said Sperber, an author and a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate school of education. “I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s so inevitable that I’m kind of amazed nobody just stands up and says, ‘Look, these presidents don’t know anything.’”
The idea of presidential control in athletics took hold with the recommendations of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in the early 1990s.
The commission was created by what was then the Knight Foundation in 1989, after a string of college sports scandals created a sense that athletic departments had gotten out of control and threatened schools’ academic integrity. The commission noted in one report that 57 of the 106 schools then competing at the highest level of sports had been penalized by the NCAA in the 1980s, along with reports of athletes taking courses like “recreational leisure.”
Putting the school president at the center of reform efforts was a key part of what the commission advocated.
“The Knight Commission’s message remains that presidential responsibility for all elements of university life doesn’t stop at the entry of its stadiums, arenas and playing fields,” Amy Perko, the current executive director of the Knight Commission, said in a statement Tuesday.
“As long as college sports are part of the academic enterprise, it’s the president’s job to ensure that its sports programs reflect the university values.”
While Perko said presidents don’t need to manage the daily operations of an athletic department, she said more must be done “to better educate governing boards and new and aspiring presidents about their roles and responsibilities for athletics oversight.”
Welch Suggs Jr., a former associate director for the Knight Commission, said the problem is more about determining the role of college athletics than a question of whether the presidential-control model is flawed.
“If it’s to be a big-time American spectacle, like the NFL or Major League Baseball, then no way,” said Suggs, now an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. “It makes absolutely no sense for academic leaders to be in charge of it. But if you want it to be a part of higher education and a function of the collegiate experience, someone has to make sure people in athletics know they’re part of the educational process and not just a commercial business.”
Thorp certainly understands the difficulty finding that balance.
In his first two years, he thought athletics “was the least of my worries” after the Tar Heels men’s basketball, women’s soccer and field hockey teams each won national championships.
Everything changed when the NCAA launched an investigation into improper benefits in the football program in the 2010. That soon expanded to academic misconduct involving a university tutor, then got worse with findings of fraud and no-show classes in an academic department with significant athlete enrollments.
At the height of the scrutiny, Thorp said the problems regularly dominated his time and diverted his focus from running the school.
And, now, after he’s probably had enough experience to handle college sports and all its problems, he’s eager for to step away from it.
As for the Knight Commission, Thorp said the two sides will agree to disagree.
“We don’t have a commission that tells us not to trust the dean of medicine to run the hospital, but we do have a commission that tells us not to trust the ADs to run athletics,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Chicago contributed to this report.