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Dr. Bruce Cairns reflects on UNC Faculty Chair Tenure


When someone gives you a compliment, Bruce Cairns said, the worst thing you can do is to believe it’s true.

He has resisted that temptation himself while serving the past eight years as director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center and for the past three years as faculty chair.

Why does he think staying humble is so important?

“Because in order to truly succeed it’s never about you, but what you can do for others,” said Cairns, the John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery, whose tenure as faculty chair ends this month.

This single-minded focus on serving others is what Cairns calls his “Rule No. 1.”

Rule No. 2?

“Never forget Rule No. 1,” he said. “I believe success in leadership is ultimately about humility. It is about respect. And it is about recognizing that the only thing that really matters is what you do for others.”

Running toward the problem

That same impulse, he said, is what drove his decision to run for faculty chair in spring of 2014 as the University navigated ongoing repercussions of academic irregularities and accreditation concerns.

“We had just gone through this critical existential crisis regarding what I considered to be primarily an academic prob- lem, rather than an athletic one,” Cairns said.

He also felt strongly that – although there were fundamental problems elsewhere – the University could not move forward until and unless the faculty as a whole accepted its role in what had happened. “If there were irregular academic classes and no one else but the faculty run classes, what did that mean? That this was primarily an athletic problem?” he said. “No, it meant that we, as the entire faculty, had to accept responsibility in order to take ownership for the resolution. We couldn’t have it both ways.”

Cairns said he felt his first responsibility, as faculty chair, was to listen to conflicting views “and create an environment where you can have constructive dialogue –with the goal of always trying to move toward resolution.”

During Faculty Council meetings, that required giving everybody a chance to speak, and at the same time, allowing the faculty governance process to address each concern that was raised, Cairns said.

Cairns also believes that faculty and administration get more accomplished working together than against each other, trusting in one another even when they don’t agree.

“Functional shared governance is the only way we are going to get anything meaningful done,“ Cairns said. “Things are only getting more complex and challenging, so I believe this principle will continue to be important.”

Finding the power of connection

Reflecting on his three years as faculty chair, Cairns pointed to a list of accomplishments that he is proud of but refused to take credit for:

  • Getting authorization by the Board of Trustees for the titles “teaching assistant professor” and “teaching associate professor” for fixed-term faculty;
  • Addressing a range of issues of special concern to women, including adding lactation rooms across campus and expanding Title IX training; and
  • Including a “diversity syllabus” designed by Interim Chief Diversity Officer and Special Assistant to the Chancellor Rumay Alexander with presentations at each meeting to help faculty members gain greater empathy and deeper understanding for people whose life experiences are different from their own. “As far as we know, no other faculty council or senate in the country has done this – explore diversity in all of its manifestations and use the insights gained in order to improve everything we do,” he said.

With the death of his mother, Beverley, in March, he recalled the lessons his parents taught him when he was a boy growing up in Chapel Hill. They expected him to live a life of purpose – and to find that purpose in service to others.

His father, Robert Cairns, a psychology professor at Carolina who founded the Center for Developmental Science and devoted his life to the study of behavioral development, showed him such a life was possible.

When he graduated from Johns Hopkins University, Cairns thought about joining the Peace Corps. Instead, he went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and joined the U.S. Navy, serving 19 years as a commissioned officer.

In the Navy, he began to see episodes in his life connected with each other. In the 1970s, for instance, he bought jelly from the Jaycees to help build the burn center he would later lead.

As a surgery resident in the burn center in the mid-1990s, he developed skills that he needed in 1997 when he treated surviving victims of Korean Air Flight 801 – a 747 airplane with 254 people on board that crashed one mile from the Guam naval housing where he and his young family lived.

And in 2014, Cairns joined with Anthony Charles, a native of Nigeria and a fellow surgeon at the burn center, to open a burn unit in Malawi in sub-Saharan Africa.

Closer to home, Cairns helped forge a partnership with the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center at Fort Bragg that led to the launch of the Advanced Medic Instruc- tor Training (AMIT) program, which for nearly a decade has offered instructors and medic trainees education and career development at UNC Health Care.

The success of AMIT, in turn, led to the development of an Allied Health program started in 2016 that trains Special Forces medics and others to become physician assistants.

‘It goes back to Rule No. 1’

But Cairns almost didn’t live long enough to witness the program’s launch in January 2016.

In September 2015, while jogging on the treadmill at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, he suffered a major heart attack and went into cardiac arrest.

Technically, he said, “I collapsed and died.” But he was resuscitated, revived with a defibrillator and taken to UNC Hospitals for an emergency cardiac cauterization and two coronary artery stents.

Less that two months later, at the Dec. 11 Faculty Council meeting, Cairns officially resumed his duties as faculty chair by recognizing the two people who saved his life: Paula Miller, associate professor of cardiology, and Xuming Dai, assistant professor of cardiology.

He then handed Miller the $100 bill that was in his wallet when he collapsed on the treadmill and asked her to use it to restart the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Symposium.

That symposium was held earlier this year on Feb. 25 – three weeks before his mother died from a cardiac arrest.

The challenges of this near-death experience and the loss of his mother have only reinforced his belief in the old adage that it is better to give than to receive. “Otherwise I think it would be really hard to keep on going. There has to be a greater purpose than thinking about yourself,” he said.

Since joining the faculty in 2000, Cairns has received the Edward Kidder Graham Faculty Service Award; the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award; the Resident Physician Advocate Award, among other honors.

Honors are nice, but they are never the point.

“It goes back to Rule No. 1,” Cairns said. “If the purpose of life is to be about yourself or what you’ve accomplished, then all the hard work, time and sacrifice you’ve put in rings hollow. On the other hand, no matter what, your life will always be enriched by service. And the value is greater when you serve the most vulnerable with the greatest need.”

Cairns believes that foundational principles like being “the University of the people” and “elite without being elitist” are what help make Carolina great and why “it has been such an honor for me to serve as chair of the faculty these past three years.”