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A passion for making a difference led to psychology professor Steve Reznick’s sterling record of service

Steve Reznick
Steve Reznick

In 1969, three weeks before he came to Carolina as a first-year student, Steve Reznick attended Woodstock. More than four decades later, he can still say with a straight face, “I went for the music.”

Music, in his hometown of Winston-Salem, was the family business. His father built Reznick’s Records into a downtown institution and his mother operated a branch in a shopping center.

Even though he had helped in the store since he was a small boy, Reznick knew that he would never be coming back to it. His father told him he would not allow it.

“I remember him telling me, ‘I will burn down the store before I let you come back and take it over,’” Reznick said. “The mall had opened and my father saw the handwriting on the wall for the future of independent retail stores.”

Instead, Reznick thought he might want to study to become a professor when he was an undergraduate at UNC in the lab of Vincent LoLordo, a psychology professor studying operant behavior in pigeons.

At the time, he was also taking note of the life of graduate students who worked in the lab with him. “What? They actually pay you to get a degree?” he asked in disbelief.

A nose for service

On his faculty homepage in the psychology department, Reznick details the professional path he took from graduation in 1973 to returning to Carolina in 1998.

“I came back to Chapel Hill for my 25th reunion and just stayed,” Reznick likes to tell friends.

But the truth is, no matter where his career took him – from Wake Forest University where he received his master’s degree, to the University of Colorado where he got his Ph.D., or to Harvard University to conduct his dissertation on infant categorization and language, or to Yale as an assistant and associate professor – Chapel Hill had always been home.

He is a leading research scientist in the field of infant cognitive development, particularly in the area of short-term working memory.

At Carolina, he has collaborated with fellow scientists and clinicians to develop a system for parents to watch for and record patterns of behavior in their babies that could be early warning signs for autism. Early diagnosis, Reznick said, allows for experimenting with treatments for early intervention. He recently received a three-year grant of more than $400,000 from the Autism Speaks Foundation to continue improving the system.

Even though Reznick has his hands full with research and teaching duties, whenever someone asks him to do something, he has an unshakeable habit of saying yes.

That’s what happened in 1999, when psychology department chair Peter Ornstein asked him to serve as director of the Developmental Psychology Program. Or recently, when he launched Child Development Perspectives, the newest journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

As a member of the Faculty Athletics Committee, Reznick invested hundreds of hours leading the task force that developed a comprehensive priority registration process that addressed scheduling conflicts for various groups including student-athletes, student teachers, Robertson Scholars and ROTC students.

He joined the advisory board of the Faculty-Staff Recreation Association, known as The Farm, and has served as its president for seven of the 12 years he has been a member. Benjamin Allred, the director of The Farm, said Reznick was the driving force behind recent efforts to replace a rundown farmhouse with a modern building and to update the pool area.

Membership dues were not raised to make the improvements, something Reznick takes as much pride in as he does in the improvements themselves. He likes to joke (with a hint of seriousness) that if Kiplinger’s Magazine ever compiled a list of best values for recreation clubs, The Farm would be a candidate for the cover.

“We don’t do fancy,” Reznick said. “People who want a country club look and feel should go someplace else. People who want a fun, affordable place to stay in shape with their families should join The Farm.”

In addition, he serves as associate dean for first-year seminars and academic experiences and co-chairs with admissions director Stephen Farmer the Enrollment Excellence Implementation Committee.

And Reznick took it upon himself to develop a 30-minute overview of the undergraduate curriculum during CTOPS orientation for new students and parents.

It is that enduring spirit of activism and sense of full-scale engagement with campus life that led Ornstein and others to nominate Reznick for a 2010 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

In his nomination letter, Ornstein wrote, “In my 35 years as a member of the Carolina faculty I have never met another colleague whose commitment to university service comes close to matching that of Dr. Reznick.”

Saying yes to Carolina

There is a danger in trying to do too much, he knows, and he tries to limit his service to only things that he is passionate about. The problem is that there is very little that happens at Carolina that is he not passionate about – now more than ever.

His nephew is starting his junior year here and Reznick helped his daughter move into her sorority house for the start of her sophomore year. He still remembers what it was like when he was in their shoes and thinks about what he needed to hear when he first came here 41 years ago.

“I think of myself as a meliorist,” Reznick said. “I believe the world can be a better place, and with that belief comes an obligation to do what I can to make it better.”

The more he sees, the more he develops creative ideas to make something that is already good become even better. Like CTOPS.

Last Thursday, as the CTOPS orientation leaders ran off the stage at the Great Hall after singing the alma mater, parents and students heard each one smacking high fives with a bearded man sitting in the front row.

It was Reznick, of course, getting pumped up to take the stage to tell students all that Carolina has to offer – and remind them to go after every opportunity they can.

Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 25, 2010

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