Campus Celebration Speech, May 8, 2008Following are Chancellor-Elect Holden Thorp’s remarks at a celebration reception for the campus community in Gerrard Hall after the UNC Board of Governors’ election.
This is an incredible day for my family and me, and I thank all of you for being here. I especially want to thank the Search Committee. What a ride it’s been. Nelson Schwab, the chair, has been a fantastic leader. And I want to thank UNC President Erskine Bowles for recommending me to the Board of Governors.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to lead the best university in the world. And I am looking forward to working with the greatest faculty, staff and students in all of higher education.
I’d like to introduce you to my family:
My wife Patti and our children John and Emma. (We decided not to bring the dog, but you’ll see her later.)
My mother Bo Thorp, Carolina Class of 1956.
My brother Clay, Carolina Class of 1990, and his wife Laura, Carolina Class of 1991.
And my cousin, John, is here from OB-GYN and he’s Class of 1979.
A couple of weeks ago, President Bowles and I went to Greensboro to talk with Jim Phillips, chair of the Board of Governors, about my candidacy for this position.
I guess it went OK. … On the way home, we stopped for gas. President Bowles got out and put the nozzle in the tank. Then he leaned back into the car and said, “I know this probably isn’t the place where you thought you’d get the most important job offer of your life, but I’d like you to be the chancellor at Chapel Hill.”
So I said, “Erskine, I’m never going to forget the Exxon on Wendover Avenue.” It’s a good thing I didn’t run inside to get some Nabs.
First, I need to talk about how I got here. When I was an undergraduate chemistry major at Carolina, I worked in Tom Meyer’s lab, and he and his students and postdocs convinced me to become a scientist—just about the best thing anyone ever did for me. Tom was chair of the chemistry department then, and Royce Murray had been chair before that. Royce and Tom’s science inspired the work that I did for my Ph.D. at Caltech, and it always made sense to me that I would be department chair one day.
In graduate school, I worked for Harry Gray—who was the most supportive mentor in all of science and also a former department chair. His love for higher education shines brightly: Harry’s lab has produced five presidents or chancellors of major research universities, and—on July 1 when I take office—three out of 62 sitting AAU (Association of American Universities) presidents or chancellors will be from Harry Gray’s Caltech lab. …
When I came back to Chapel Hill in 1993, the chair of chemistry was Joe Templeton, the finest human being I know. So I always wanted to be chair of chemistry, thanks to people like Royce, Tom, Harry, Joe, Bill Little and many others.
But the reason I went into administration when I did was because of James Moeser.
One night eight years ago, he and Matt Kupec took me down to Fayetteville to speak at an alumni event. On the way there, James told me that he wanted to help the Morehead Planetarium and that he hoped I would help him figure out how to do that. I didn’t know the first thing about astronomy. But of course, I said yes.
My lesson is that if the boss takes you on a trip and asks you to do something, you should do it.
I simply can’t put into words what James Moeser has done for me. And I know that all of you here today join me in deepest appreciation and admiration for what he has done for Carolina these past eight years.
I’ve had other wonderful mentors in South Building, especially Bernadette Gray-Little, Steve Allred, Bruce Carney and Matt Kupec. Thank you.
Until a year ago, I made my living with chemical formulas and mathematical equations. But when I became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I traded in my periodic table and my calculator for a thesaurus and a dog-eared copy of Strunk and White. Now I write speeches and correspondence instead of patents and scientific publications. And now, only a year into my new life of letters, I land a job where the last three words of most speeches have already been chosen for me.
“Hark the sound.”
What am I to think of this? Well, “hark” is an active verb…sorta. But what of this “sound”? What will Carolina’s sound be in the years to come? Will it be the sound of the Bell Tower chimes? Yes. Will it be the sound of James Taylor? Certainly. Will it be the sweet sound of a basketball hitting the net? God, I sure hope so.
But if we do our job well, when we make a sound, we will make the sound of knowledge: knowledge that comes from an unrelenting commitment to the highest levels of scholarship. Knowledge created because we take risks instead of merely adding increments to what we know. Knowledge produced when our students participate fully in research and benefit from our scholarship in the classroom. Knowledge that welcomes diverse viewpoints. Knowledge arising from an irresistible urge to question every assumption.
Hark the sound of knowledge.
And we won’t succeed unless our sound is also the joyful noise of opportunity: opportunity that comes when everyone can afford higher education. Opportunity produced by an understanding of global society, and the problems and circumstances of the worlds beyond North Carolina. Opportunity that shows up because education at a research university is the best preparation for success in our times.
Hark the sound of opportunity.
Now I don’t know if y’all know how these searches work … but I’ve had about seven months to think about whether I might be standing here today. And I tried not to think about it. I tried not to think about my family, and my closest friends, my colleagues from the Dean’s Office, my mentors from South Building, and my buds from the chemistry department all standing here. But I did.
And I’ve got to tell you, it’s even better than I thought it would be.
Still, I have two regrets. The first is one that I knew I would have, and that is that my father, Herb Thorp, Class of 1954—who loved this University more than anything except my mother—would not be here today. When I was old enough to remember—but not old enough to go to sleep without a little assistance—he would come in my room to sing to me. This wasn’t necessarily a big help. My father had that musical gift that allows some people to sing the words of one song to the melody of another. But there was one song he always got right, so if I couldn’t go to sleep, it was a sure thing that I would hear “Hark the Sound” before it was all over. I never did figure out what the words meant. So one night, I said, “Dad, what’s a gemry?” He said, “A gemry?” I said, “Yeah, Carolina, priceless gemry.” Good thing I never tried to figure out “clear its radiance shine.” I still don’t know what that means except I know it’s really good.
The second regret is one we all have and that’s that Eve Carson isn’t here today. She was at my first interview, and she only asked me one question. “Holden!” she said, “I think I already know the answer to this, but if you’re the chancellor, what’s the one thing you want students to say after four years at Chapel Hill.” My answer—which I pledge today not to forget—was: “This is where I learned to love knowledge.”
We have so much work ahead of us. Our to-do list is nothing less than the greatest problems of our time: cure diseases, and get those cures to all the people who need them. Find and invent clean energy. Inspire students in our public schools. Feed seven billion people. Describe the world, and replace conflict with understanding.
Today, a child of modest means was born somewhere in North Carolina. And despite the long odds of her circumstances, she’s going to excel in public school and have the potential to solve one of these big problems. She probably won’t want to go to college very far away from her family. And eighteen years from now when that happens, we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready to promise that she has a fair shot to get in to Carolina. We’ll be ready to guarantee she can afford to be here. And we’ll be ready to see to it that she gets a world-class education from a great research university right here in her home state.
And that’s why we are what we have always been: the brightest star of all, the light on the hill, the priceless gem.
“Watch her watch the morning come.”
HARK. THE. SOUND.