Holden Thorp, a chemistry professor at North Carolina who graduated from the school in 1986, was selected Thursday by the UNC Board of Governors. He will succeed James Moeser, who is stepping down after eight years in the position.
"This is the best job in America in higher education," said Thorp, who will earn $420,000 a year and starts July 1.
And at 43, Thorp will become one of the youngest university leaders in the country. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education's most recent survey of college and university presidents, just 6.4 percent reported their age as 49 or younger.
Thorp has held many jobs at North Carolina: director of the Morehead Planetarium, chairman of the chemistry department and, for the past year, dean of the College of Arts of Sciences. This is his first job leading a university, and he's taking on one with more than 28,000 students and 3,200 faculty members.
"He is the right leader for today and the right leader for tomorrow," university system President Erskine Bowles said in nominating Thorp.
Thorp was born and raised in Fayetteville, and the choice of someone from within the state "speaks volumes about the quality of leadership within this university," Bowles said.
Of his many goals for the school, Thorp said his top is that the university "do an even better job at being a place where people with great ideas can take risks, because one of the things we're facing, particularly with cuts in federal funding for biomedical research, is that it's getting harder to take risks.
"And of course, most of the great breakthroughs that we have come from things that people do that are a crazy idea that they probably shouldn't have tried. And we need to be a place where that happens.
"And that isn't just true in science. It's true in all the things that we do."
Thorp, who holds 19 issued or pending U.S. patents, earned a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology and conducted postdoctoral work at Yale University before becoming an assistant chemistry professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
He returned to Chapel Hill as a chemistry professor in 1999.
Thorp is "as true blue a Tar Heel as they come," Bowles said, and Thorp himself described how his father would sing "Hark the Sound," the Tar Heel alma mater, at bed time. It was usually preceded, he said, by a chorus or two of "Aye! Zigga Zoomba," a Tar Heel fight song.
"These are challenging times, I know," Thorp said. "But North Carolina, in spite of the difficulties we face, promises a great future. Why? Because the idea of a research university, a place where research and teaching are done by the same people, is a bold and audacious idea, the very fabric of American prosperity and innovation.
"And you know what? There's one idea that's even better than a research university and that's a public research university."