The Uncertain Hour: The Rally in Support of Chancellor Thorp

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The Uncertain Hour: The Rally in Support of Chancellor Thorp

by Alex Karsten

After the Clef Hangers sing “Carolina in My Mind[1] to open the “Rally in Support of Chancellor Thorp” that took place on the steps of South Building, one of them wishes the chancellor all the best as he is moving forward. The first performance was barely over, and already I am already asking myself the question that will hang over the rest of the rally: “What are we here to do?” Four answers were offered.

The first and most obvious answer is that we are here to try to convince Chancellor Thorp to reconsider his resignation. The Facebook event for the rally, which shows that 1,618 virtually pledged to attend, states in the first paragraph of its description: “Together, we will request that Chancellor Thorp reconsider his decision to step down.” Some speakers do not have the same fatalism of the Clef Hangers: for them the resignation seems to be very much still in question. One of the student speakers, Leigh Fairley, even goes so far as to qualify her statements about the future of the University with, “If Chancellor Thorp decides to step down,” as if he hadn’t already announced his resignation. As Mayor Chilton of Carrboro says, in apostrophe to the absent Chancellor, “You’ve only made, in my eyes, one mistake as chancellor, and that’s deciding to step down.” There is a sense that those who are gathered on the quad hope that they are here to achieve something; like if enough of us show up, and if we cheer loud enough, maybe he will come out of South Building and promise us he will stay.

Mayor Chilton’s assertion also served as an example of the second answer to the question of purpose: we are here to celebrate his chancellorship. Joseph Terrell of local folk band Mipso celebrates Thorp as “a true American renaissance man;” James Holeman calls him “a great friend to the housekeeping department;” Dr. Jim Ketch, chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee, simply says, “God bless Chancellor Thorp.” Every person who gets up on stage has only positive things to say about the chancellor. When controversies are alluded to, it is only to show how well Thorp has handled the difficult hand he was dealt. With all these unabashedly positive remembrances and with the chancellor not present, the whole event is oddly reminiscent of a vigil, an event that this campus has become all too familiar with over the past few years. Jackie Overton, chairwoman of UNC’s Employee Forum, taps right into this sentiment in the first speech of the afternoon: “Usually when this campus comes together like this, it is when something tragic has happened.” I hate that this is true.

The sense of mourning combined with the stark sense of purpose makes for a strange atmosphere, but that atmosphere is made even stranger by the fact that this rally also serves as a demonstration of strength by the University community. Mayor Chilton indirectly refers to the rally as a demonstration when he compares it to student demonstrations of years past: “When I, as a student, marched and rallied on South Building, it was not in support of the Chancellor.”

The force being rallied against most obviously is athletics. One of the few signs being held up reads, “Big Time Sports: 1, UNC: 0.” David Brannigan, who works for grounds, is the most willing to speak about the influence that athletics has had on this University, saying, “We have to address the structural problems. We all know what they are.” He gets the second biggest reaction of the day when he goes a step further, warning the crowd of unsavory elements that are “using athletics as a Trojan Horse to attack this chancellor and this university.” A student in front of jumped up and down in excitement, the rest of the crowd is no less excited. It is at this point that I have the strongest sense that we are yelling not just for ourselves but for others to hear.

Brannigan’s is the most overt reference to the alleged influence of the right wing on Chancellor Thorp’s decision, but it was not the only one. There are multiple signs taped up (presumably not by the event’s organizers) to educate the crowd about Art Pope; speakers especially highlight the chancellor’s commitment to affordability and accessibility; and the name “University of the People” rings out for the entire hour. Jan Boxill, Faculty Chair, borrows heavily from protest vernacular for her speech: “We are all one together…It’s not just about him, it’s about protecting the University of North Carolina.”

But the rest of the rally quickly becomes inconsequential at 12:55pm. As Alexis Davis, president of the Black Student Movement, finishes her speech with the statement “I still believe in Chancellor Thorp,” the man himself triumphantly comes out of South Building, his family at his side, and makes his way towards the podium. The crowd instinctually rushes forward and gathers together so tightly I can no longer take notes, as if we all want to touch him and make sure we don’t miss a single word. It’s loud. It’s bright. It feels important. South Building looms over him like a temple. Polk Place is sacred ground. I wonder if we’re going to mob him, carry him around on our shoulders like a victorious coach. It was orchestrated, but in the moment it feel so spontaneous, like when a loved one finally comes out of the gate at the airport. It’s so sudden as to have emotional significance.

Thorp speaks only briefly. Looking over the crowd, he says, “Carolina’s staff, faculty, and students are stronger than ever. I knew that; now everyone else does.” Then he announces that he will not go back on his decision. Everyone is silent. The crowd didn’t even know if he would show up, and then he did. There was so much hope for such a brief moment, but it leaves as abruptly as it came. Surprisingly, he continues to speak: “We will not waver in our commitment to higher education…Together we are the light on the hill. Let it shine.” The crowd begins chanting “We Support Chancellor Thorp,” and it doesn’t really matter that it is unclear what exactly we mean. We sing the Alma Mater, quietly but still proud, like after a lost game, and by “Go to hell Duke” it’s all over.

What were we there to do? We were there to ask Chancellor Thorp not to resign, though that was probably always a lost cause. We were there to celebrate Chancellor Thorp, though that will more appropriately happen in the spring. We were there to show our strength, though who was paying attention or will care is very much in doubt. By the time we started chanting, “We support Chancellor Thorp,” it seemed we were there as Jackie Overton said in the very first speech, “to show our remorse for not stepping up sooner,” and as Dr. Ketch urged us, “to create an environment where a leader can lead.”

Perhaps the atmosphere of the event was so strange not because of the mixture of hope, mourning, and bravado, but because of the even stronger presence of guilt. Will Leimenstoll, Student Body President, said: “I don’t think he’s tired because of serving the students and the faculty. I think he’s tired because he has borne the brunt of the storm facing this University. We need to swear that whoever our chancellor is in the future does not bear the brunt of this storm on his own.”

We will probably never know why Chancellor Thorp stepped down, but now we know for certain that he will. Among those who supported Chancellor Thorp, it will be difficult, but necessary, to look back and wonder if more could have been done. Among the entire University community, it is absolutely necessary to look forward to the difficult task ahead and ask ourselves: “What do we need to do?”

[1] UNC’s feel-good anthem, which just happens to be about imminent death. 

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