Tom Heath, Carolina Population Center’s Deputy Director for Finance and Administration, retires after 28 years at CPC

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How many of you know that Tom Heath has completed two marathons during his career at CPC?  One was a 26.2-mile race in 2000 and the other, as he approaches retirement from UNC, is a 26(+2)-year run at the Carolina Population Center. Heath is Deputy Director for Finance and Administration and after more than 28 years at CPC, he is retiring October 31, 2017.

Heath is an exceptional leader who has administered many of UNC’s most complex grants and contracts. Since 1989, he has had financial oversight of more than 700 funded research projects. In four of the last five years, CPC was the leading unit on campus for grant awards. In 2017, CPC was awarded over $107 million in grants and contracts, many involving subcontracting arrangements that required subaward negotiations all over the world.

His knowledge and expertise in how to facilitate administration of small to very large research funds in North Carolina, across the U.S., and internationally are widely recognized across the UNC campus. Many faculty and staff members seek his advice for resolving complex problems in research administration. He has helped shape the University’s administrative processes by serving on search committees for campus leaders and by serving on committees such as the PeopleSoft HR Stakeholders and the OSR Business Managers Advisory Committees.

A few tidbits about Tom offer insights into his tenure at CPC:

  • “Once a nerd, always a nerd” is not quite a direct quote about himself, but he has said that he was essentially the same as a kid as he is today.
  • He has a large “Rage Against the Machine” poster in his office. To some, he may BE the Machine, to others, he protected them from the Machine.
  • During the rollout of ConnectCarolina in 2014, when things weren’t going smoothly, Tom sent a memo to the CPC community that stated: “So big changes are ahead, and you’re now probably wondering exactly what this means to you and your work.  That’s difficult to predict.  My best professional opinion is that the level of disruption will be somewhere between Y2K and the Zombie Apocalypse.  Admittedly, this is a wide range, but my advice is to prepare for the worst.”  The descriptor Zombie Apocalypse took hold across campus and was frequently quoted as ConnectCarolina got smoothed out.
  • Tom served under six directors and two interim directors.  One can only guess at what that education process was.
  • He took on a role that no one else at CPC has had: he is CPC Man, a character rarely seen, but instrumental in Keeping the World Safe for Demography.
  • Heath uses his keen sense of “administrative humor” in messy situations.  He recently declared that his “greatest achievement” was his Excel template that calculates cost share for faculty on NIH research projects.  He wrote “Common Administrative Mistakes” for new faculty fellows and reminders for existing fellows.  This document includes 13 mistakes to avoid—from “engaging someone as a consultant without authorization” to “violating the Fly America Act” to “forgetting who owns ‘your’ computer.”  Each mistake is followed by an explanation, which includes admonitions like “This is frequently an unpleasant surprise to the investigator” or “to keep from being snagged by these restrictions….”

CPC Faculty Fellow, Barry Popkin, who has been at CPC during Tom’s entire tenure, said, “Tom represents the heart, soul and spirit of CPC and gave of his heart to each of us as needed. We could always count on him when problems emerged that needed his ‘can-do’ spirit and major support.” 

At CPC, Tom oversees purchasing, accounting, travel, human resources, payroll, proposal processing, compliance with funder regulations, and research project start-up and close-out. He frequently works with other research centers, universities, and domestic and international organizations as well as lawyers, auditors, human resources folks, and many others to keep CPC functioning. And he has done it all with a great sense of humor. Heath’s first reaction to a problem isn’t “we can’t do that,” it is “how do we make that happen?” He worked diligently to protect CPC’s Faculty Fellows from as many administrative hurdles as possible so that they could focus on the science.

Andy Johns, Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Research highlighted this point in his comments: “Tom is one of those people who isn’t content to sit back and accept the status quo, but is rather constantly exploring opportunities to improve the organization or the project in which he is working. He perfectly balances the operational demands that an organization faces day-to-day with the need to think and plan strategically; in other words, he doesn’t get lost in the trees but makes sure the trees are properly attended. Tom is also an individual who is eternally loyal to the organization in which he works; he doesn’t consider the relationship to be simply an employment relationship but rather one that is more of a personal challenge to succeed. Problem solving is what ‘makes him tick.’”

Most research proposals require a statement about the extent of the center’s infrastructure, including administration and finance. Heath has said that funders want a sound, established admin unit and don’t want a “creative” unit. Heath and his team of 10 professionals are exceptionally creative in problem-solving an array of issues.

Elizabeth Frankenberg, CPC director, notes that Tom’s reputation extends far beyond UNC. “As an affiliate of several other Population Research centers, I had heard many UNC faculty sing Tom’s praises long before I joined CPC.  As I quickly discovered, his reputation is richly deserved. He really has been a key force behind research at the Center. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him in the months I have been here, and I and many others will miss him a great deal.”

Heath has an MA in Public Policy Sciences and a JD in Law from Duke University, both of which helped him navigate the UNC bureaucracy and read the fine print on the contracts and data use agreements that often landed on his desk.  But, it was often his BA in Philosophy from Emory University that came shining through when he would say “I want to take a philosophical approach of this issue” and then expounded on the virtues of one tactic or another – or perhaps both – to ponder competing approaches that a good administrator considers. 

In Tom’s honor, the Tom Heath Fund for IT Innovation has been established.  Tom has always been interested in the application of IT to center issues, especially ways to make operations easier and better for the staff in supporting research and training.  Donated funds will facilitate IT innovation in meeting rooms, shared spaces, and facilities for the entire CPC community (www.cpc.unc.edu/aboutcpc/make-a-gift).

When Tom was asked about being honored in this way, he said: “You know I’m big on thinking about CPC as a community (even a family!).”  That sums up Tom’s commitment and contributions to CPC.  He’ll always be a member of the CPC family, even when he’s enjoying travel, reading, learning to cook, bicycling, and many other activities he plans to undertake with his wife Gail during his well-deserved retirement.

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