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The call of duty supersedes astronomer’s search of the stars

Bruce Carney, Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2010 Massey Award Winner
Bruce Carney, Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2010 Massey Award Winner

Bruce Carney’s work in South Building bears a striking resemblance to the Hubble Space Telescope’s journey into space.

Both have kept going longer than anyone imagined – or expected.

“The reality in terms of science mimics the beauty of the images it [the Hubble] has produced,” Carney said. “What it has enabled us to do far exceeds what we could have done from the ground. It has provoked new questions.”

Launched on April 24, 1990, the Hubble remains aloft thanks to four repair missions.

To Carney, the Hubble is a symbol of the can-do attitude that has always been part of the American character.

And he should know. Carney and his fellow astronomers in Carolina’s Department of Physics and Astronomy spent 18 years cooking up a high-tech telescope called SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research) that has been in operation since 2004.

They set the $30 million, 100-ton telescope atop Cerro Pachon, a dusty, 9,000-foot desert mountain in the Chilean Andes, where for the past six years it has been capturing the highest quality images of any observatory in its class in the world. Carney wore the same necktie, printed with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” to both the groundbreaking of the project and its official dedication, which happened six years, to the day, apart.

A citizen of the University

To Chancellor Holden Thorp, Carney epitomizes the willingness to do what is asked to serve the University – even when it comes into direct conflict with his plans to return to his true calling.

Carney came to Carolina as an assistant professor in 1980 and became a full professor in 1989. He was named Samuel Baron Professor of Physics and Astronomy in 1994.

For much of that time, Carney focused his research on our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Using infrared light, Carney has been able to collect data on some of the oldest stars to gauge their temperature, brightness, chemical composition and age.

In 1999, Carney became the chair of the department and when he left five years later, he had earned a competitive leave as well as a research and study leave. Combined, the leaves added up to a one-year sabbatical to focus on his research.

It never happened. Instead, he agreed to a request from Bernadette Gray-Little, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to serve as senior associate dean for the natural sciences. In this capacity, Carney helped plan the new Carolina Physical Sciences Complex, the largest construction project in the University’s history. He also named Thorp to serve as chair of the chemistry department.

In 2008, Thorp – who had become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences – was named chancellor. Gray-Little, who by then was executive vice chancellor and provost, asked Carney, in consultation with Thorp, to fill Thorp’s place on an interim basis as dean of the college.

That pattern was repeated the following summer after Gray-Little was named chancellor of the University of Kansas, when Thorp called upon Carney to serve as interim provost while a national search was conducted for Gray-Little’s successor.

Carney accepted on the condition that once a provost was named, he would get the chance to take his long-postponed sabbatical to prepare for a return to his research and teaching.

During the spring, the University narrowed the search for a new provost to three candidates, but ultimately, as Thorp explained in a letter to the campus community, there was not a match. Rather than re-open the search, Thorp prevailed upon Carney to stay in the role on a permanent basis.

“Not only has he come to enjoy the job, but we’ve come to rely on him,” Thorp wrote. “He’s done an outstanding job and appointing him allows us to continue moving forward without skipping a beat.”

Finding the fountain of youth

It is the kind of job that can weigh as heavily on the heart as the mind, especially in bad budget times when the best you can do is to limit the damage that repeated cuts inevitably inflict.

“These have been challenging decisions, in part, because I have come to know how remarkable this University is – the students, the faculty and everybody else,” Carney said. “And so the slashing and hashing – I won’t say butchering because that would sound as if there has been a meat-cleaver approach – is done with the realization that people and programs are being hurt.”

It is the kind of job that does not shut off neatly at the end of the day, and is never out of Carney’s mind.

“Some people can let go of their jobs when they leave campus. This one travels with me. It travels with me when I am on vacation. It travels with me in the evenings. Usually it is not paramount, but it is there.”

Earlier this month, Carney was the featured speaker for the Employee Forum’s annual retreat to explain exactly what a provost does and how he has gradually come to embrace the job in all its dimensions.

“I have actually enjoyed this job in many respects,” Carney said. “It is challenging as hell, but so is every job on this campus. I have less time to devote to my students, but it is still an intense responsibility and I’m glad I could do it.”

He added, “I’ve been told by medical experts that the more you stimulate your brain, the slower you age. Well, I have found the fountain of youth, folks.”

With his sabbatical now gone, Carney is left with three options. He can remain provost for as long as he is wanted. He can retire. Or he can return to the physics and astronomy department without much time to prepare.

“I’m here as long as I can do the job and do it well,” Carney said.

His willingness to take the job – and his ability to perform it well – earned Carney a 2010 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

But it also left him with a lingering sense of irony, which in a recent interview he underscored by picking up a coal-colored meteorite from his desk. By studying the radioactive elements in the meteorite’s crystal structure, astronomers can tell with precision that the meteorite is 4.57 billion years old, Carney said.

“As I tell people from time to time, I keep this thing on my desk because it still links me to my field,” he said. “But I also keep it to remind myself that, here in this office, things will fall out of the sky.”

Originally published by University Gazette: June 16, 2010

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