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Chris Payne, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Christopher Payne has a favorite brainteaser that never fails to stump the countless students and colleagues he has shared it with at Carolina.

“My riddle for folks is that I am a UNC graduate, but not a Tar Heel alum.”

The other UNC is the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley where, in 1992, Payne earned a Ph.D. in college personnel administration.

That stop at that other UNC put him on the path that, eight years later, led him to Chapel Hill, Payne said, but it also signified a major turning point in his life.

Born in Boise, Idaho, Payne grew up in Arvada, a town on the western edge of Denver, Colorado. He earned a psychology degree from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and went on to earn his master’s degree in guidance and counseling at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville in 1982.

Working with students had always been something he had been interested in, Payne said. As an undergraduate at Colorado State, he had served as a resident adviser.

At Wisconsin Platteville, he had served as a hall director.

“Most people have experienced some kind of trouble or faced some kind of challenge and needed someone to reach out to in those moments for guidance and support,” Payne said.

The good or bad decisions a student makes in those moments can have a huge impact on the rest of their lives, Payne said.

Being there for someone just to listen, he discovered, could sometimes make all the difference.

The desire to help people, and more broadly, serve a community, continued to find expression during the seven years he worked at a bank in Loveland, Colorado, he said. He started as a bank teller, and later, sponsored community outreach projects as the bank’s marketing manager.

But a series of bank mergers in the late 1980s forced him re-evaluate his career choice. “That was the point at which I had determined higher education was where I really wanted to be,” Payne said.

That same penchant for listening and service is what helped Payne earn a 2015 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, one of the most coveted distinctions the University gives faculty and staff.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt selected the six honorees from nominations submitted by the campus. They each received an award citation and $6,000 stipend.


Transforming southern campus

Payne got his first job in higher education when Dean L. Bresciani, the director of housing and residential education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, hired him as his assistant director.

Eight years later, the two men again reconnected in Chapel Hill when Bresciani, who was then Carolina’s associate vice chancellor of student services, hired

Payne away from the University of Denver where he was working as director of housing operations.

When Payne arrived on campus in fall of 2000 as Carolina’s director of student housing, he found himself on the cusp of what would become the most prodigious period of building growth in University history.

By fall of 2001, four new residence halls were under construction on Manning Drive.

By spring of 2005, the Rams Head Center opened along Kenan Stadium’s eastern flank and quickly became a destination point where students come together to eat, play, work out or just hang out, Payne said.

“The idea, which was built into the campus master plan, was to no longer have some parts of campus that were just residential or academic or administrative,” Payne said.

“We wanted to knit the campus together in such a way that there are now a mix of uses everywhere.”

The final cornerstone of that strategy was put into place in August of 2007 with the opening of the SASB – Student and Academic Services Buildings at the corner of Manning Drive and Ridge Road.


The power of connection

Payne looks back on those frenetic years of construction as a testament to the many people from housekeepers to faculty who “have such passion and care for this place and the students we serve.”

The spot on campus that captures that spirit most powerfully for Payne is The Eve Marie Carson Garden behind the Campus Y, he said.

Named for the student body president who was murdered in 2008, the garden is intended as a place of honor for all Carolina students, past and future, who pass away before they graduate.

Payne said what inspires him about this place is the inscription wall, made of Georgia marble in honor of Carson’s home state. Chiseled in that stone is a quote from Carson that

Payne said he will forever remember:

“Learn from every single being, experience, and moment. What joy it is to search for lessons and goodness and enthusiasm in others.”

Those words, Payne said, are a reminder to the students that continue to arrive on this campus and the impact they can make before they leave.

“I think Carolina has an institutional climate that draws individuals with passion for making a difference,” Payne said. “And that passion is shared by our faculty and staff as well. We share a deep commitment to listen to what our students are telling us so that we can make the changes that need to occur not only on our campus, but throughout the world.


Christopher Payne

Home: Durham

Job: associate vice chancellor and senior operating officer for Student Affairs

UNC employee since: 2000

Family: He and his wife, Coleen, attended rival high schools in the same town, but met two decades later, on Feb. 13, 1992, in Loveland, Colorado. They married a year later. Their two children, Catie and Connor, grew up competing in demonstration jump roping. Catie earned a bronze medal at the world competition in Toronto, Canada

What it meant to receive a Massey award: “The award was very meaningful for me in the sense that it acknowledges all the work that is done by so many all across the organization on behalf of our students,” Payne said. “This award sheds a light on one individual, but it’s much larger than that.”


By Garry Moss, University Gazette

Originally published by University Gazette: January 15, 2016


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