UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp named WUSTL provost

He succeeds Edward S. Macias, who has served as chief academic officer for the past 25 years

Holden Thorp, PhD (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Holden Thorp, PhD, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and a highly respected research scientist and academic leader, will become provost of Washington University in St. Louis on July 1, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

He will succeed Edward S. Macias, PhD, who has served as chief academic officer for the past 25 years. Macias announced in September that he would step down from his position as provost and executive vice chancellor at the end of the academic year, on June 30, 2013.

“Holden Thorp is one of America’s most highly respected leaders in higher education,” says Wrighton. “He is a great scientist with an excellent track record of achievement and a reputation for his commitment to student success, academic excellence and professional integrity. He is an entrepreneur who has founded two companies and understands the importance of innovation and technology transfer.

“He will help lead us into the next phase of our development and will be an effective colleague in working with our academic leaders to develop our university-wide initiatives. Holden has valuable experience in all aspects of a diverse academic enterprise, from medicine to music.

“The theme of our current fundraising campaign is ‘Leading Together,’ and I am grateful for the commitment that Holden has made to work with me and our leadership team to build the quality and impact of Washington University. Holden has high academic standards and accomplishments in areas central to our future success: preparing the leaders of tomorrow, advancing human health, stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship, and enhancing the quality of life for all.

“I am fortunate to have in Holden Thorp a strong partner in sustaining Washington University’s momentum. I am also thankful to the members of the advisory committee who assisted in bringing to our community an outstanding new member of the university’s senior leadership team,” Wrighton says.

Thorp, 48, who announced in September that he planned to step down as UNC’s chancellor, will hold an endowed professorship in the Department of Medicine at the School of Medicine and in the Department of Chemistry in Arts & Sciences. He says he was attracted to WUSTL because of its leadership and reputation for setting high standards and expectations.

“Washington University has done an extraordinary job of setting lofty objectives for itself over the last two decades,” he says. “Mark Wrighton is clearly a great chancellor who has the benefit of being in office for a long time and seeing a lot of his initiatives through. The university’s goal of enhancing its leadership today to benefit the world tomorrow is bold, unapologetic and focused on the right kind of academic objectives. I was drawn to all of that.

“I think this opportunity at Washington University is kind of the best of both worlds for me,” he says. “My interest is on the academic side, and being provost at a great place like Washington University is a wonderful opportunity to use what I’ve learned about higher education, stay in a significant and important administrative role and work with a great chancellor like Mark Wrighton. This is the right and logical next step in my career.”

A North Carolina native, Thorp became UNC’s 10th chancellor in 2008. In all, he spent three decades at the university, starting as an undergraduate student who earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry with honors in 1986. He earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1989 at the California Institute of Technology and did postgraduate work at Yale University.

After teaching a year at North Carolina State University, he returned to UNC to teach chemistry in 1993. He became chair of the chemistry department in 2005 and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2007 before being named chancellor in 2008.

Through his research, Thorp developed technology for electronic DNA chips and founded several companies. He raised funds for a science complex that helped boost faculty research productivity and served as director of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

“As a university trustee and member of the advisory committee on the selection of the provost, I couldn’t be more pleased with both the selection process and the final outcome,” says David Kemper, vice chair and life trustee of the WUSTL Board of Trustees and chairman, president and CEO of Commerce Bancshares Inc.

“We had a wealth of really talented finalists for this important leadership position, and Holden Thorp will no doubt help guide the academic future of Washington University with vision and distinction.”

“Our committee was presented with a very strong and extremely impressive group of scholars and educational leaders for consideration,” says Barbara A. Feiner, vice chancellor for finance and chief financial officer. “Holden Thorp stood out among this group for his scholarship in chemistry and application to health, as well as for the breadth of his leadership experience, having served as a department chair and dean of arts and sciences and chancellor of a major public university. I look forward to working with him.”

President Barack Obama participates in a college affordability roundtable with college presidents in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Dec. 5, 2011. At right, Holden Thorp shares his thoughts with the group.

(Credit: Official White House photo)

A nationally known higher education leader, Thorp was among a dozen college presidents and higher education leaders invited to the White House in 2011 to discuss with President Obama how campuses can become more affordable while producing more graduates.

He serves on the national Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which was created by the six presidentially based higher education associations to chart a course for improving college retention and attainment and, in turn, restoring the nation’s higher education preeminence. He is also on the national Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council.

Under Thorp’s leadership, UNC launched “Innovate@Carolina: Important Ideas for a Better World,” a roadmap for innovation in science, business, medicine, nonprofits and academia. He serves on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which held its first national forum in Chapel Hill.

He is the co-author of “Engines of Innovation — The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century,” a UNC Press book that makes the case for the pivotal role of research universities as agents of societal change.
Thorp, who has published 130 scholarly articles on the electronic properties of DNA and RNA, holds 12 issued U.S. patents. He was awarded a Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1991 by the National Science Foundation.

Later in 1991, Thorp was one of 20 people awarded a $500,000 grant by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for research on compounds used in genetic therapy. Both grants were for research to develop cancer and AIDS drugs as alternatives to chemotherapy.

In 1996, Thorp co-founded the biotechnology company Xanthon Inc., which produced technology still being used today for genetic testing. In 2001, Thorp was recognized by Fortune Small Business as a Small Business Innovator for the work that led to the company’s founding.

In 2005, Thorp co-founded Viamet Pharmaceuticals, another biotechnology company, to develop treatments for cancer and other diseases. Viamet has two programs with drugs in Phase II clinical trials.

In 2012, he was selected a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, a nonprofit organization that recognizes investigators who translate their research findings into inventions to benefit society.

“Holden’s record indicates that he will propel the university and the St. Louis region forward in the science and engineering arenas, especially as related to health, as well as in the liberal arts,” says Ralph S. Quatrano, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the Spencer T. Olin Professor, who also served on the advisory committee.

“He already has been focused on and personally involved in critical initiatives facing universities now and in the near future, such as online education and innovation. He is the right academic leader for Washington University at a key moment in its history,” Quatrano says.

Since mid-2010, Thorp has led UNC through a difficult period beginning with an NCAA investigation of football players receiving improper benefits and academic misconduct related to a tutor. UNC also investigated and addressed academic irregularities found in one department.

He oversaw an investigation of improper spending for personal travel by two fundraising administrators who resigned. Throughout, Thorp has been praised by many as a man of integrity and forthrightness in dealing with these issues.

An accomplished musician who plays jazz bass and keyboard, Thorp is married to Patti Worden Thorp, and they have two children, John, 18, and Emma, 14.

Holden Thorp on point

On innovation:

I think universities are being called to demonstrate the immediate importance of what we do, especially in the research area. There are logical arguments about the long-term value of research that are incredibly important. First and foremost is the idea that deep thought is an important thing for human beings to engaged in.

Second, the base of knowledge that drives all of education comes from research universities. A lot of basic research bears applied fruit at some point in the future and we don’t have a way of knowing the basic research that the inventors of the future are going to need.

In that sense, realizing the applications of our research is incredibly important, and it is also fulfilling for the faculty members to be able to experience — while they’re in their career — the application of their research. It’s important to have students in an environment where those kinds of things are happening because we’re expecting them to leave Washington University and create the ideas and jobs of the future.

On interdisciplinary collaboration:

Many of the huge problems that the world is facing now are interdisciplinary problems, and that’s because we’re doing a better job of describing the problems we’re facing now and because many of the problems that fit into one discipline are more easily addressed.

The big challenges that remain for us are problems that cross engineering, science, the humanities, public policy, all these things. If you think about something like clean water or poverty or diseases that are influenced by behavior and public policy, those are all things that bring together large numbers of disciplines.

Washington University has done a good job with initiatives like energy and the environment, religion and politics, and advancing human health. These are interdisciplinary objectives that have been articulated, and it’s an important role of the provost to get together the people who need to be talking to each other.

On intercollegiate sports:

The role of athletics is important at a place like Carolina and it’s also important at a place like Washington University. At Carolina we faced a number of challenges but I think we did a good job of addressing them and positioning Carolina to succeed in the future. The great intercollegiate athletics programs of the nation will continue to be important in the future. The appeal of a Division III school is the community-focused nature of it. Patti and I are huge sports fans and we will be cheering on the Bears just as enthusiastically as we have cheered in Chapel Hill.