Seated in his office on the second floor of Brookings Hall on the eastern edge of the Washington University campus, Provost Holden Thorp has a pretty good metaphor for what his job entails compared with that of university Chancellor Mark Wrighton.
“You can see the chancellor’s office is across the hall,” Thorp said in a recent interview. “His office faces the park and the Arch and downtown. My office is on this side and faces out to the old quad.
“So, yes, I’m the person who is in charge of taking care of the inside of the university, and I thoroughly enjoy doing that. Students and faculty and the people who work at universities, those are the folks that I’ve devoted my career to and helping them achieve their dreams is what excites me about this work.”
Thorp came to Washington U. last summer after five sometimes tumultuous years as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He acknowledges the many differences between the two campuses, in terms of athletics, private vs. public education and other factors.
But in many ways, he says, he is continuing the work he has done throughout his career at UNC, where he earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry, then returned to spend 20 years as a professor, department chair, dean and chancellor.
He had planned to return to the classroom when he left administration, Thorp said in a wide-ranging discussion that involved everything from tuition to online learning to sports to science and the humanities.
But, he said, Wrighton had a different idea.
“When I stepped down,” Thorp said, “I said I wanted to get back to teaching and research, and the provost is the officer of the university who is most intimately tied to the academic side. So in a way this was going back to the academic side of a university, only helping other people do it more than doing it myself.”
Not surprisingly, he added that what he has found so far is that Washington U. is a good fit for him and for the students and faculty he wants to recruit.
“Obviously, there are some big differences between public and private higher education,” Thorp said, “in terms of how intimate the undergraduate experience is and how dedicated the faculty and staff are to providing the kinds of hands-on undergraduate experience here that the students expects and that we view as part of the uniqueness of Washington University.
“What we have here is the best of a liberal arts college and the best of a research university, all rolled into one. That part is really fun, to be with people who value undergraduate education at the level that it’s valued here, and come up with great new ways to combine that with outstanding scholarship.”
At North Carolina, Thorp became ensnared in the troublesome thicket of academics and athletics, a situation involving student-athletes and courses that weren’t always what they seem.
In the interview, he seemed genuinely relieved about not to have to worry about big-time college sports anymore. And he confirmed a quote first reported in a New York Times column.
When he was being shown Washington University’s Francis Field on a campus tour, he mentioned that he had heard the stadium had a capacity of 3,500.
The response: “Yes, but it’s never been tested.”
Thorp, 49, is not only an academic but also an entrepreneur and a musician. He and his wife, Patti Thorp, have a college-age son and a teenage daughter.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On college costs:
“The size of the increases in percentage terms has been going down the past few years. There was a time when it was possible for universities to raise tuition by a lot and it’s just human nature, they just naturally did that. What that created in some ways is a sense that we could do a lot of things for a lot of the different constituencies that wanted things from us. You know a big research university like this has a lot of different constituencies that expect different things from the university. The town expects us to be engaged in certain ways. The faculty expect to be able to do their research and teaching and have a lot of support. The students expect great facilities and hands-on advising and all these things.
“It’s great to be able to deliver that. I think we’re reaching a point now, we’re starting to have to make some decisions about what the things are that we want to continue and what we’re going to have to need to pull back on, if we’re going do something about the increased costs. That’s a challenging process, because we have a lot of stakeholders who have a lot of high expectations for Washington University.
“Over the past five years, higher education (has been) in the process of recommitting itself to research and teaching as our primary functions and doing public service in a way that is synergistic with those two things.... People are waking up to the fact that what we experienced in the late '90s to about 2008, where we were able to grow in kind of every way we wanted to, that that period of expansion is over and we’re now in a period of constraint, and that period of constraint is kind of the new normal.”
On financial aid:
“We’re trying to balance our need to produce revenue with our commitment to making higher education accessible to everybody who deserves a chance to be here. Part of how we do that is by taking some of the tuition revenue and using that to discount tuition for some students. That’s a widespread practice in higher education. We have students here who literally don’t pay anything toward their tuition.
“One way of measuring the accessibility of universities is what is the percentage of low-income students that are able to attend a particular school. Washington University has had for quite some time a lower number of such students, those are students who qualify for a Pell Grant, which is a particular form of federal financial aid. We don’t think that’s the whole story in college access. We think that helping students from middle-income families, which we do very well here, is also an important part of the picture.
“We think the graduation rate is an important part of the picture. But we want to do better about helping students from the lowest income brackets who qualify for Pell Grants have the opportunity to come to Washington University, and so that’s why we have announced in the last few weeks that we will be continuing to increase the size of the group of students who qualify for Pell Grants who come to WashU.”
On the university as real estate developer:
“The projects we have going are all very important to us. The Loop project, I think, is great for us, great for St. Louis, great for our students. The Loop is a very vibrant college town shopping area. I’ve been involved with a number of these, and the Loop is the most successful one that I’ve seen, thanks to Joe Edwards’ extraordinary vision and the engagement of Washington University. There are restaurants there that are independent, and there are different kinds of stores, and if you compare that to a lot of college town strips in America, that just have pizza and bars and comic book shops, the Loop has a lot more vibrancy than many of our counterparts around the country.
“Cortex is another area where we’re very invested, and just getting started. Cortex is doing very well. It’s not just a tech transfer park. There’s going to be an IKEA there, BJC’s got a big building and we’re recruiting other kinds of large tenants. I think once we get the retail, the housing and everything going there, that will be one of the most successful developments of its kind in the country.
“It’s not a money maker directly for the university, but it is a place where some of the university functions can find a home. So that part helps us. But it’s really about making sure that we are vitalizing St. Louis because if St. Louis is successful, Washington University is successful, and vice versa.”
On student safety:
“We want students living as close to campus as we can. I always tell parents when they ask me what’s the best way for their students to succeed in college, I say keep them living on campus as long as you can, because it’s safer and students are more involved in their schoolwork the longer time they live on campus. That’s again why we’re building projects that give students some of the advantages of living off-campus that are important to them, with some of the advantages of having them in our housing, where our police can look after the properties and where we have our residential education programs, combining those things is again something that kind of helps. It also gives the students some of the advantages they are looking for, but it still gives us some of the advantages that we get from having students living on campus.”
On making money from research:
“I’ve been involved in this area of tech transfer in a number of different ways, (including) as the founder of two university spinouts. One raised money and created technology that is still being used today but didn’t have a good business outcome because we ran out of money in September 2001, which was not a good time for venture-backed companies to run out of money. Then we started another company, Viamet Pharmaceuticals, which is doing well, has two drugs in the (pipeline) and we’re hopeful that one of those will be approved.
“So I’ve seen this process as inventor and founder, but then I’ve also seen the process as department chair, dean, chancellor and provost. So I know a lot of the complications and interesting things that can happen. I think that we have to be very careful that we set expectations properly. There’s a perception out there that there’s a lot of IP, intellectual property, lying around the university that we just need to commercialize and create a whole bunch of jobs in St. Louis. In reality, it’s a much more hands-on, messy process than that, and involves various twists and turns and doesn’t always create jobs for people living near the university where these companies are created.
“It’s unusual for universities to be able to really make a lot of money off of their intellectual property in a way that would make the revenue the sole justifying reason for doing this. A few drug licenses have returned hundreds of millions of dollars to universities, but that is unusual, and most of the time universities are fortunate if they have enough money coming in from their royalties to fund the tech transfer process itself.
“I think that’s OK, because a lot of our faculty want to be involved in this. When we have star faculty who want to be involved in commercializing or realizing the impact of their intellectual property, then it’s part of our job to make sure that they get to do that.”
On online learning:
“Before I left North Carolina we had been working on putting this class up on Coursera, and when I moved here, the chancellor told me it was OK to do that class back with my partners in North Carolina. We just started it about three weeks ago, and it’s a lot of work getting the materials ready because it’s all videos that are done ahead of time.
“But the process of offering the course is really exciting because you can go on any time night or day and look at the forums of the students taking the class and the questions they have. It’s pretty overwhelming to see people involved in your class from all these different backgrounds. We have two or three of them on Google Hangout each week and they come to us from all over the world and share their ideas and we talk about them. So it’s pretty exciting.
“A lot of people were concerned (that online classes) would somehow replace what we do in higher education. That’s not the case at all. Most of the people who are doing these online classes are people who already have college degrees. They’re lifelong learners. This whole MOOC movement, which is the Massive Open Online Courses, is really more about people who have already had the experience in residential education of becoming lifetime learners, continuing to do that using these online resources.”
On college sports:
“It’s a tumultuous time in Division I athletics. I really enjoyed my time with the teams and the coaches and the players at UNC. I’m grateful to be taking a break from all that, and my heart goes out to all the people who continue to struggle with all of these challenges and hard discussions about college sports.
“Thankfully, here at Washington University, in Division III, we don’t have a lot of those same issues. Our students who play on the teams are totally integrated into the life of the campus in every way. They still make big sacrifices, traveling for the university and competing, but I think it’s something that enhances their academic experience in every way, and it’s great to see how committed the coaches to all of that here.”
On the humanities, science and music:
“The humanities are an incredibly important part of what we do here at WashU. One of the things that I think we struggle with in the humanities and the understanding people have of it is that most people agree that we should teach Shakespeare and Chaucer and Arthur Miller. A lot of people think that’s all of what we teach in the humanities, and that it’s kind of a static thing way of looking at the past. But in fact there are lots of new adventurous theories and new texts to study in the humanities.
“If you look at the employment figures and the success levels, liberal arts graduates do very well when they go out into the business world. Sometimes, if you look at the early employment figures, the engineers and business degrees tend to do a little better right after school, but if you look over the course of somebody’s career, liberal arts majors do just as well as business majors and engineers over their careers. Most great American companies are led by CEOs who got history and English degrees. A liberal arts education is about becoming a lifelong learner.
“Music and science go together a lot. It’s only recently that people have even questioned that. In the early days of education, you always saw science and music going together. There are an awful lot of chemistry majors and engineers who are also great musicians.
“What I tell people is that especially in pop music, I’m interested in jazz and pop music, the goal is to learn the rules of music and then to figure out what you can do within those rules. Science is kind of the same way. We have certain laws of science that are not violated, and then we try to be creative with the new kinds of things that we test or the new ideas that we come up with within those laws that nature has given us.”