Carney leaves the campus at its Best Ever

Posted by
On June 13, 2011

For the past six years, a civil engineer of Irish descent from Massachusetts has celebrated St. Pat’s in proper Rolla style. “St. Pat’s,” he says, “is always my favorite celebration of the year. It’s also the time of year when I’m pleased to reveal my full name: John Francis Patrick Carney the Third.”

  • Carney enjoyed spending time with family (pictured with Patricia and grandchildren Cate and Andy Goering).

  • Carney presents a Homecoming participation trophy. Photo by Bob Phelan

But it’s more than his Irish heritage, engineering background and the St. Pat’s party atmosphere that makes Missouri S&T Chancellor John F. Carney III feel at home during the campus’s most celebrated tradition. It’s also the crowd that St. Pat’s draws to campus. With hundreds of alumni returning every March, Carney gets plenty of opportunities to connect with alumni. That, he says, is one of the most important — and enjoyable — parts of the job.

Since 2005, Carney has met and welcomed hundreds of alumni back to campus during St. Pat’s, Homecoming, class reunions and other occasions. He’s also traveled around the country to meet alumni — at section meetings, road games and various special events. When the chancellor retires from his position in August, he’ll travel back to his native Massachusetts to spend more time with his two daughters and four grandchildren. No doubt he’ll catch a Red Sox game or two and perhaps attend a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, which also has a reputation for throwing a pretty good St. Pat’s party.

While celebrations like St. Pat’s remind us of S&T’s heritage, leaders like Carney remind us that progress and change, even for 140-year-old institutions, are crucial for survival. The university he leaves behind has changed, visibly and fundamentally, from the campus it was when he first arrived. Thanks to Carney, the university has a new look, a new academic structure and a new name. In many ways, the condition of Missouri S&T is the best ever.

More than a change agent

When Carney first arrived in Rolla — or “Rawler,” as it sounds in his Boston accent — the university was on an upward trajectory. Enrollment was growing steadily, new academic programs were attracting a more diverse student body, and research funding and donor support was up. Much of this was due to the work of Carney’s predecessor, the late Gary Thomas, who served as chancellor from 2000 to 2005.

Under Carney, the university continued that momentum, achieving record fundraising and near-record enrollments. Early in his tenure, though, the chancellor saw some potential roadblocks that could hinder future growth. In his view, the way the campus was organized stifled collaboration. On top of that, the university wasn’t getting the recognition Carney thought it deserved.

Future historians may define Carney’s legacy at S&T in terms of how he addressed those two issues. At least one contemporary historian sees one of those issues as the defining characteristic of the Carney years.

“The one thing he did that might be most lasting is the name change, because the recognition of the university outside of Missouri is clearly higher now,” says Larry Gragg, chair and Curators’ Teaching Professor of history and political science. Gragg also chaired the selection committee that recommended Carney for the chancellor’s position.

Despite this legacy, the students, alumni, faculty and others who worked most closely with Carney see him as more than a change agent. Known for his sense of humor, quick wit, and passion for sports (especially the Boston Red Sox) and his family, he’s also been described as an excellent communicator and problem-solver, a confident catalyst, a hospitable and “genuinely good person,” a caring but business-minded leader, and an inspiration to those dealing with personal adversity.

He’s seen as someone who strengthened the university’s connection with alumni — even while pressing forward with decisions that weren’t always popular.

“From the alumni association’s perspective, we have never had a better relationship with the university than we have right now, and in large part it’s because of Jack Carney,” says Perrin R. Roller, GeoE’80, who served as president of the Miner Alumni Association from 2008-10. “He recognizes the value of a close tie with the alumni association and all the good that brings, both to the school and to the alumni association.”

Younger alumni who were students during Carney’s tenure also see him as a strong advocate for students.

“Chancellor Carney legitimately cared about students,” says Beth (Groenke) Morrey, IDE’09, who served as president of the S&T Student Council during her senior year and is now a dental student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. During her presidency, Morrey sponsored a resolution that expressed support for a new student fee to help fund a fitness center on campus. “The day I came in with the news that Student Council had passed the motion unanimously, you could see the excitement in Chancellor Carney’s eyes because of what a new fitness center would mean for the students and for the university as a whole.”

Another former Student Council president, Lauren Huchingson, IST’07, describes Carney’s approach as both businesslike and compassionate.

“In the end, Missouri S&T is a business that needs to thrive financially so it can continue to improve and focus on the overall student experience,” says Huchingson, who now works for Accenture as a management consultant for corporate strategy. “My personal experiences with Chancellor Carney formed the image of a man who was objective and willing to make the tough decisions while still able to remain compassionate.”

Making a name

Carney’s 45-year academic career began in 1966, when he joined the University of Connecticut’s civil engineering faculty. He later held faculty and administrative positions at Auburn, Vanderbilt and Worcester Polytechnic Institute before coming to S&T. Along the way, he built a reputation as an international expert in traffic safety research.

Reputation, or the lack of it, was one reason Carney pushed to change the university’s name from the University of Missouri-Rolla to one that more accurately described its true nature.

“Being a civil engineer, I’d long had an appreciation for the quality of the institution,” Carney says. But soon after arriving on campus, he discovered that his appreciation wasn’t widely shared.

“What was confirmed early on,” he says, “was that we hadn’t made a concerted effort to promote the university nationally and internationally. It didn’t take me long to get irritated by the lack of recognition, even in the state.”

The name change, which took effect in 2008, has helped to remedy that situation.

A reluctant change agent

“I didn’t walk in the door thinking I was going to close the schools and change the name of the university,” Carney says. But he knew coming in to the job that the university faced some serious budget issues. “During interviews, we had to tell the candidates about how much we were in the red,” Gragg says. Carney “attacked that and made some cuts.”

Faced with the need to reduce $1 million from the university’s budget, Carney saw an opportunity to not only meet that requirement — by eliminating the campus’s three schools and College of Arts and Sciences — but also to streamline the administration while maintaining academic programs. The move also broke down barriers between academic units. Although that change was “far less visible” than the name change, Morrey says, it nevertheless had a significant impact on students. “Throughout the process,” she says, “Dr. Carney was consistently asking what concerns students had with the new structure and what problems we could foresee to try to make the transition as simple as possible.”

A year later, at the encouragement of the university’s Board of Trustees, Carney introduced the possibility of a name change. Through forums, conversations, electronic surveys and this magazine, Carney presented his case for the name change to various groups — students, faculty, staff, alumni, Rolla community leaders and others.

“It was difficult,” he says. “A lot of individuals were upset.”But once the decision to change the name was made, “it was important to stay the course. In my mind, I knew it was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t positive that it would happen.”

Roller acknowledges that the name change and academic restructuring proposals “weren’t wildly popular” with some alumni. But Carney’s analytical approach to presenting his ideas won many over.

“Like a good engineer, he looked at the situation, he analyzed it, he came up with his ideas, formulated a plan and moved forward with it,” Roller says. “He presented such a compelling argument for changing the name that we couldn’t ignore it.”

Carney’s “very up-front, no-nonsense approach” to discussing issues with alumni was an asset, says Darlene (Meloy) Ramsay, MetE’84, who served as president of the alumni association while the name change process was under way in 2007 and 2008. “Even alumni who might not agree with him respect his analytical approach and leadership,” she says. “I think his confidence is what gives him such respect from our alumni. He’s very confident about saying what he needs to say and doing what needs to be done.”

A great communicator

One reason for that respect has to do with what Gragg calls Carney’s “extraordinary communication skills.”

While preparing to conduct the search for a successor to former Chancellor Thomas, Gragg’s committee met with students, faculty and staff to find out what attributes these various groups wanted to see in the next chancellor. “The only thing mentioned in every forum was, ‘You’ve got to find someone who’s an excellent communicator, both internally and externally.’ We found that in Jack Carney. He’s just very good at it.”

Carney’s communication skills were put to the test during the name change process. If some alumni weren’t wildly supportive of the proposal, significant portions of the student body were even less so.

Huchingson, who served as StuCo president during the name change, recalls with admiration how Carney prepared her, Morrey and other student leaders for handling student concerns before publicly unveiling his plans to begin the name change discussion.

“I had been student body president officially for less than a month when Chancellor Carney asked our officer core to meet him,” Huchingson says. “I’ll never forget the five of us sitting in his office” when he announced his intent to publicly discuss the name change concept. “He covered a few other topics and then looked at us and said, ‘We’re going to change the name of the university and I need you to not tell anyone for the next two days.’ I was absolutely shocked — and what a secret to keep.”

During that meeting, Carney “went on to thoroughly explain his rationale and the events leading up to what he knew would be a very controversial topic,” Huchingson says. He also solicited feedback from the student leaders and “wanted our opinion about the student reaction.”

“He sat in his office with us for the next hour answering every question we had and intently listening to our opinions. I could tell that our feedback was really important to him.”

Once the news broke two days later, “the student body erupted,” Huchingson says. “Students I knew and students who recognized me were pulling me aside and asking a million questions. At one point I had probably seven people crowded around me. Most complained; some agreed. It was exactly what the chancellor had prepared me for.”

Throughout the name change process, “Chancellor Carney was nothing but supportive when I would contact him with student questions that I didn’t know how to answer,” Huchingson says. “His office scheduled multiple open forums he personally attended to answer questions from students, faculty, staff and the media.”

At those forums, “People were angry and concerned,” Huchingson recalls. Yet Carney “stood at the podium during each session as people blasted questions at him and he answered each thoroughly and remained calm. As always, his wit was present in most of his responses as Beth and I watched him start to convince some people that the university was moving in the right direction.”

Making the case

Beyond the campus, Carney also spent time talking to alumni about the changing economics of public higher education. In meetings with alumni sections, he emphasized how declining support from the state required the university to rely more on private support.

Until recently, “Our alumni tended to see our university as a state-supported university,” Carney says. “There was an element of surprise when we told our alumni that only 27 percent of our funding came from the state, not 60 percent.”

Once Carney made the case, alumni were more open to support the university.

“At about that same time, we started being very direct with the graduating classes about the extent of financial aid they received” and encouraged them to donate to the Miner Alumni Association.

The approach has worked. Even during the recession and slow recovery, donations to Missouri S&T have held steady. The university surpassed its $200 million goal for the Advancing Excellence Campaign, which ended last summer. Major construction projects — including a the Kummer Student Design Center, the first building for Innovation Park and the Miner Dome athletic training facility — were all completed within the past year. The student design center and Miner Dome were funded entirely through private donations.

“We are becoming more and more like a private institution,” Carney says. “With the decline in state funding, we have to.”

Wonderful medicine

‘Wonderful medicine’

In December 2009, Carney lost his wife of 45 years, Patricia Reynolds Carney, following a two-year battle with cancer. In the months after her death, Carney poured much of his energy into the job. The name change and academic reorganization now behind him, he focused on fundraising and strengthening connections with alumni as the campus’s $200 million Advancing Excellence Campaign entered its final months. The campaign ended with a bang, nearly $12 million over the goal, on June 30, 2010.

The months following Pat’s death were “a very difficult time,” Carney says. “Having this job and being totally involved in it was actually a wonderful medicine for me.”

How Carney handled the death of his wife served as an inspiration to Roller as he dealt with death in his own family. Roller’s father died in 2010, and two weeks later his mother suffered a stroke. During this time of personal turmoil, Roller says, “I looked at how Jack had handled his situation for strength.”

Carney’s graciousness is also well-respected, and his hospitality extends beyond official duties. For example, when Gragg and Jeff Schramm, Hist’92, were in Boston for a conference in January, Gragg phoned Carney to ask for suggestions on where to go for dinner. It was winter break, so Carney was at his Cape Cod home. Instead of offering recommendations to Gragg, “He drove up from Cape Cod and took us out to dinner. He’s just a genuinely good person.”

As Carney prepares to retire, he’ll need to muster plenty of physical strength and stamina to keep up with his grandchildren, who share his passion for sports.

“Three Christmases ago, Pat and I bought an outside basketball hoop” for their grandson Andy Goering, now 10. “He’s definitely going to eat my lunch in about a year, so I’ve got to play him now while I can still win.”

There’s no doubt that at Missouri S&T, Carney is going out a winner.

Posted by

On June 13, 2011. Posted in Features, Summer 2011