Leadership & Governance

Opening Up Admissions at a Rich Private College is Holden Thorp’s Latest Challenge

Holden Thorp, Washington University in St. Louis

February 26, 2015

Video produced by Julia Schmalz and Lisa Philip


ANDY THOMASON: Today we're talking with Holden Thorp. He's the provost at Washington University in St. Louis. Thanks for being here.

HOLDEN THORP: Thanks, Andy, great to see you.

ANDY THOMASON: So at Wash U.—The New York Times last year profiled Wash U. and highlighted its lack of socioeconomic diversity. Just recently, Wash U. has announced an initiative to increase the portion of Pell-eligible students from 6 percent to 13 percent. Would that have happened, would that initiative have rolled out if The New York Times hadn't pointed it out to the world?

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HOLDEN THORP: Well, we have had it on our list to address this for some time. In fact, before The New York Times did their story, when I was interviewing for the job at Wash U., I talked with the search committee and what the people as I was transitioning in to do more on college access. And it was kind of the right time in terms of our plans, but it's also true that the attention that it got certainly had something to do with the timing.

It was something everybody wanted to do. It was definitely on the list. It was definitely part of why I went to Wash U. to work on this, having come from a place where college access was so important and natural. But it's also true that the attention that it got kind of helped us build the consensus that we needed internally to make this move. And we're very proud of having done it. The news coverage has been part of how all this came together.

ANDY THOMASON: It got some other coverage. It got some other reaction. A lot of people look at 13 percent, and they looked at Wash U.'s institutional profile, and said that number could be a lot higher. Why not set an aspirational goal of something higher than 13 percent?

HOLDEN THORP: Well, we felt that, if we could get to 13 percent, that was something that was going to take a lot of change internally in terms of how we think about it. That was a goal that we could imagine getting to, because a lot of our peers are around that number. And so our answer to that question is, well, we're going to get to 13 percent, and then we'll see what we do after that.

But I think the fact that we're making this move shows that we take our obligations to give everybody a chance at a Wash U. education, if they deserve one, seriously. And so our first plan is to get 13 percent. And then, when we've done that, we'll look around and see what makes sense from there.

ANDY THOMASON: You alluded to your past. You were chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is known to have a very serious commitment to socioeconomic diversity. They've got a very high share of Pell-eligible students there. How did that inform your take and your emphasis on this issue?

HOLDEN THORP: Well, I think the transition that I made from a place like Carolina that does have 21-percent Pell-eligible, and one in five in the first generation of family to go to college—that certainly informs my work in administration. And that's part of, I think, why Wash U. sought me out. And what I felt I could bring is kind of knowing what it looks like when we put these things in place. So, as I said, it's something I've been on the ground doing since the day I signed up to move to St. Louis.

ANDY THOMASON: Speaking of Carolina, at Carolina you weathered all number of scandals, most notably the one that's become termed as the fake-classes scandal. And last year a new independent report that everybody knows about—the Wainstein Report—came out. I'm sure you read it, and you were interviewed for it. How did you react?

HOLDEN THORP: I thought it was a courageous report for Carolina to do. I thought that Ken Wainstein did a thorough job. I kind of knew what it was going to look like, because I had been talking to him as it was going along. And I think that people will continue to say this or that about what's in there, but I think he did a thorough job. And I think that certainly everything that I could've thought of to ask about was in that report. So whatever happens from beyond then is kind of post the report.

ANDY THOMASON: Did it make you regret anything about your tenure as chancellor?

HOLDEN THORP: Well, I've said many times that I should have gotten some information faster than I did. And I think the lesson from that is that these institutions, whether it's Carolina or Wash U., or these great American universities, their shoulders are really broad. And so Tar Heel Nation was able to take a lot more than anybody imagined that it could take, and I certainly underestimated that.

And I think we've seen the same thing in St. Louis. I mean, we had a tough year in the city, but our applications are even with last year. And I think that's because schools like Carolina and Wash U.—they can withstand things happening and keep right on motoring. And that's been a great lesson for me.

ANDY THOMASON: A group of students presented the Wash U. administration with a petition basically as a way of trying to get the university to reckon with what it says was racism on campus. You said it was very thoughtful document. Where do those efforts stand right now?

HOLDEN THORP: We responded to the students, to their 16 demands. There's only one that we said we absolutely weren't going to do, which was they wanted us to take a political position on a local Civilian Oversight Board. And we decided we wanted to stay out of that. But the rest of them, we have responded to them and are working our way through the demands that they brought. And I think they're a pretty good framework for setting out how we go about making our campus more welcoming and inclusive for everybody.

So it's been a good process, and, as you know from covering me in the past, I have experience with student activism. And, again, I think that's something that I was able to bring to Wash U.. And this has been a really good process for us.

ANDY THOMASON: So you no longer oversee a big-time athletics program. Are you sleeping better at night now?

HOLDEN THORP: Well, my heart goes out to everybody who's trying to figure out what to do with big-time sports. Yes, I'm glad to be out of it, and I enjoy watching the games on television and not having to worry about all of these complex issues that attend the whole thing.

ANDY THOMASON: And you still watch the Duke game?

HOLDEN THORP: I still watch Carolina basketball from time to time, yes. But my heart rate doesn't get up quite as much as it used to.

ANDY THOMASON: Great, well thanks for being with us.

HOLDEN THORP: Yep, great talking to you, Andy.


Andy Thomason is a web news writer. Follow him on Twitter @arthomason.