Tom Thornburg Set to Retire from School of Government

The UNC School of Government extends its gratitude and congratulation to Thomas H. Thornburg, who will retire from his full-time role on the faculty at the conclusion of 2022.

Joining the then Institute of Government in 1990 as an assistant professor, Thornburg quickly established himself as an expert in criminal law and procedure—mostly working with superior court judges and magistrates. As his tenure at the School grew, so his did his expertise—Thornburg edited and revised the fourth edition of North Carolina Crimes, served on leave as chief legal counsel for the state’s Department of Corrections, and coordinated structured sentencing implementation training for court officials.

Six years after joining the faculty, then-Director Mike Smith selected Thornburg to serve as the Institute’s associate director. He would eventually serve in this administrative role for 23 years and finish as senior associate dean for the School in 2020.

The two leaders formed a decades-long partnership, one that played an instrumental role in supporting the:

  • Institute’s transformation to a School,
  • expansion of its funding model,
  • creation of a School of Government supporting foundation,
  • incorporation of the Master of Public Administration program,
  • founding of the North Carolina Judicial College (for which Thornburg served four years as director), and
  • exponential growth in the services provided by and reach of the School.

Each worked in tandem with the other, playing to their respective strengths to build on the mission of the School, Thornburg said.

“A colleague once remarked that the dean and I were like the yin and yang of the School of Government. His energy promoted and generated ideas about new work for the School,” he remarked. “I was about executing those ideas in excellent ways, with support, policies, tools, follow through, and on and on. We complemented each other well and supported and drew colleagues into getting new work done.”

For Smith, the feeling is mutual.

“Tom has played a major role in advancing the School’s mission in more ways than I can count,” Smith said. “His fingerprints are everywhere.  He has been the consummate problem solver who knows how to get things done, and then he gets them done.”

As the end of his time at the School approaches, Thornburg noted that, upon reflection, the decades spent in stewardship of the School, its people, and its mission have been the most rewarding aspect of his career.

“While I liked the teaching, scholarship, and advising of a faculty position at the School, I found being an administrator more fulfilling,” he said.

In 2020, Thornburg returned to the School’s faculty and his roots to instruct and advise magistrates on issues of criminal law and procedure. He also worked to coordinate the School’s primary annual education program  for public attorneys, Public Law for the Public’s Lawyers.

In recognition of his service, the School established an employee mentorship award in Thornburg’s honor in 2022. He was selected as one of its first recipients.

Among his other recognitions is service on a variety of boards and commissions, including the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission, and the Earlham College Board of Trustees. Thornburg was a 2010–2011 Academic Leadership Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He was secretary to the School of Government Foundation for more than a decade. He served in numerous greater university roles, including: Senior Academic/ Associate Deans’ Council, the Provost’s Committee on Inclusive Excellence and Diversity; Faculty Grievance Committee; Project Working Group for Resource Management, Planning, and Allocation; Employee Procedures Working Group concerning Sexual Violence, Discrimination, and Related Misconduct; Advisory Committee on Transportation and Parking; and International Affairs Advisory Council.

Thornburg earned bachelor’s degree from Earlham College and an M.P.P. and J.D. from the University of Michigan.

In celebration of his remarkable career, the School of Government hosted a retirement gathering at the Knapp-Sanders building for Thornburg on November 18, 2022, where a cherry tree was planted in his honor.