RALEIGH ó There is no one so talented that he canít be put in a job for which he is ill-suited. History teaches this. Experience teaches this. The Peter Principle suggests one explanation for it. And yet, some folks canít seem to accept the reality that a person of evident talents, skills, and good faith can turn out to be a failure if put in the wrong job.
No, Iím not talking (today) about President Obama. Iím talking about outgoing UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp.
By all accounts, Thorp was a successful member of the chemistry faculty. He was an excellent researcher and popular teacher. Some of his work led to valuable applications, and to start-up companies. Dr. Thorp should probably never have left his department. But he did, moving up the leadership ladder to Chairman Thorp (of the chemistry department), Dean Thorp (of the College of Arts and Sciences), and then Chancellor Thorp in 2008.
Iím no fan of the way that athletic programs have come to dominate the image and business operations of universities. In my view, the semi-professional farm teams co-located with university towns (but not truly integrated with the schools themselves) that entertain fans, sell products, and supply players for professional football, basketball, and baseball franchises ought to be independent of academia, as is the case in Europe. To pretend that kids recruited to win games are ďstudent-athletesĒ in any meaningful sense is an insult to everyoneís intelligence. You are a student-athlete if you wrestle, swim, or swing a bat but are on campus to study for a non-athletic career. You are not a student-athlete if, in the absence of athletic ability, you would never have entered college in the first place, and have few professional prospects outside of playing or coaching.
Thatís my view. It is far from the majority view, however, and there is no obvious way to get educational institutions out of what has become a lucrative business enterprise. So if you aspire to become a university chancellor or president, you better get used to the idea that much of your job will involve managing your sports franchises. Indeed, even if you aspire only to be a college dean, the job Holden Thorp held before becoming chancellor, you had better be on the lookout for evidence of intrusion, collusion, and corruption from the athletic program.
Thorp wasnít. The scandal in the Afro-American Studies department existed during his tenure as dean. It continued into his chancellorship. Other staff members perpetrated the fraud, but Thorp should have been paying closer attention to the departments under his jurisdiction. Frankly, the dean of any college where large numbers of football or basketball players are enrolled should be aware of the potential for abuses Ė and be willing to do something about them, regardless of the effect on the win-loss ratios of sports teams in the general vicinity.
I take Holden Thorp at his word that he looks forward to rejoining the chemistry department. I donít blame him. Heíll be happier there. Thatís where his academic career took him, and where in retrospect he should have remained.
The talents and skills that make you a good professor have little to do with modern university management. I happen to think that is tragic, but it is true. A place like UNC-Chapel Hill is only partly an educational institution. It is also a medical provider, a set of research labs, a political patronage machine, a venture-capital fund, a land developer, an arts and entertainment district, and a massive sports entertainment business.
Until we rethink the model, these conglomerates will require professional management, not professorial management.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolinaís Economic Recovery.