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Creating a new covenant earns Ort a Massey Award

What happens to somebody who is quite content working quietly behind the scenes, and who then suddenly finds herself cast under the spotlight of center stage?

The short answer, Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, will tell you, is a feeling of slight discomfort mixed with tremendous pride.

That was how it felt two years ago when Chancellor James Moeser unveiled the Carolina Covenant during his 2003 State of the University address  and revealed her as its main architect. The flurry of attention that ensued both for Ort and the University has yet to subside. The Covenant, as Moeser had hoped for and predicted, has become a national model other universities have sought to emulate.

And that was how it felt this spring when she was named one of six recipients of a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award in recognition of her work with the Carolina Covenant.

As Ort describes it, “Something like the Carolina Covenant, because of its resonance, tends to focus attention on somebody like myself. I’m grateful for that, but I’m mindful of the many people on this campus who are making quiet achievements who are equally deserving. But it is, nevertheless, a great honor.”

Winning it, Ort said, makes her feel an even greater sense of responsibility to do more and do it in a way that best represents the University and the egalitarian values on which it was built.

Starting a revolution

The nominating letters written on her behalf for the award were many, the soaring praise in each of them striking consonant chords.

One of the most encompassing yet succinct came from Dan Thornton, the associate director of academic scholarships, who wrote of his colleague:

“Shirley Ort has, in her typically charming and non-self-aggrandizing way, managed to start no less than a revolution in the field of college financial aid through the achievement of the Carolina Covenant. In doing so, she put Carolina in the vanguard of those universities trying to ‘do the right thing’ where access and opportunity are concerned. Though not a North Carolina native, she nonetheless seemed to grasp the notion better than others in how Carolina could best serve the people.

“The daughter of a tenement farmer in rural Michigan, she understands personally how opportunities in education can profoundly change one’s life. The covenant for her was no means to increase the stature of her position, nor was it a cynically crafted political or marketing device to win headlines and glory for Carolina. It was the result of personal empathy and experience.

“She is a wonderful mentor, a gracious hostess and solid friend.”

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert Shelton noted in his nominating letter that while the covenant provides a “beacon of visibility in Carolina’s commitment to make a word-class college degree accessible to all,” Ort’s contributions cover an even wider base.

Under her leadership, Shelton said, the Office of Student Scholarships and Financial Aid has managed hundreds of accounts to the optimal benefit of Carolina students. Students who qualify for need-based aid receive most of their assistance in outright grants rather than loans. The availability of such aid has led to a dramatic reduction in students’ debt on graduation a trend that stands in marked contrast to that of other universities, Shelton said.

And it has happened because of Ort’s leadership, he said.

Mary Flanagan, director of development for the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, said Ort has brought great honor to Carolina as the creator of a program that is being copied by universities across the country, large and small, public or private.

“She has told me that it has been her dream that one day colleges all over this land would compete for brilliant, underserved students  much as top athletes are scouted and recruited. Because of her talent and vision, she is making a difference not only for our university but the entire country.”

‘Access and success’

Ort, along with Jerry Lucido, vice provost for enrollment policy and management, came to the University about the same time in 1997. Ever since, they have viewed the other as a valued colleague linked in common cause.

Lucido teamed with Ort to conceive the Carolina Covenant, and he is now serving with her on the College Board, the non-profit membership association that connects students to college success and opportunity.

Lucido is serving as national vice chair of the Guidance and Admissions Assembly, while Ort is national chair-elect of the Scholarship Service Assembly. His nominating letter for Ort began with the phrase: “Access and success.”

It is a phrase tied to the history, to the mission, to the culture of Carolina, Lucido said.

Access and success, Lucido believes, is what Charles Kuralt had in mind when spoke of Carolina as “the University of the people.”

And access and success are at the heart of what Ort had in mind when she constructed the Carolina Covenant.

“She understands that access is empty unless success is the result,” Lucido said. “That is why the Carolina Covenant, our debt-free pact with low-income students, is so extraordinary. The essence of the program is not money alone.”

Ort recognized that students from poor families are reluctant to start college and are more likely to drop out. And she also understood that students from such backgrounds need to acclimate to the intellectual community and the covenant makes this possible through the requirement for students to work on campus to cover part of their expenses.

When they do, they are referred to as “Covenant Scholars,” not aid recipients, in recognition of their academic talent and potential.

“In other words, our covenant scholars are provided financial and personal resources that are punctuated with praise and high expectations,” Lucido said. “This is the work of a gifted administrator who understands that all of us here are educators and that we must be dedicated to the fundamental missions of our campus.”

Spreading the word

The point that Ort plans to keep making to different audiences across the country is that the Carolina Covenant is not so much a financial aid policy as it is a reinterpretation — or maybe even a reincarnation — of historic values both at Carolina and throughout the state itself.

“There is an authenticity to this that grows out of our own setting,” Ort said. “The other thing that makes it unique from other institutions’ programs it that it is a promise to future generations of students. While it is Chancellor Moeser’s legacy to the University, what all of us understand who really know Carolina and truly know the state of North Carolina is that this is not a policy that is likely to be revoked.”

For Ort, the most significant thing about the covenant is that it will be enduring.

“Practically speaking, who amongst us gets the chance to believe that something good that we have accomplished will last?”

Ort said this idea of being a part of something enduring came to her in the form of a phone call she received hours after Moeser made the announcement. The excited voice on the other end belonged to Edward St. John, a professor of higher education at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on the impact of public finance on educational opportunities throughout the country.

“He said, ‘Shirley, you’ve just been able to put your footprints in concrete.’ And then he said, ‘Few of us ever have that opportunity.’ Ed got it even then.”

Some scholars have said that the most selective universities have excluded a large segment of the population in their pursuit of excellence, Ort said.

“But Carolina has always understood that you don’t have an excellent institution or an excellent system of education unless it’s equitable. That will always be one of the standards by which we evaluate ourselves.”

There is also, for Ort, a covenant within the covenant, which is to make a connection with some of the students. She wants to dig into the details of their lives, look for the spark in them that others once found in her.

“I don’t want to only read about them,” Ort said. “I want to know their character and their challenges and their triumphs and pressures and so I look forward to opportunities when they naturally present themselves to me.”

One such opportunity came at the start of the fall semester during a gala held to welcome the Covenant Scholars.

At the end of the evening, Ort left with the inside of her coat lined with name badges of students she had talked to. Later, she would write on each of the tags snatches of the conversation she had with each of them.

One lucky student whose tag found the inside of her coat was named Robin. Beside his name, Ort jotted down this parting exchange. “He said, ‘Just remember it like Robin Hood.’ And then he told me. ‘I think it is good you take from the rich to give to the poor.’”

She couldn’t have scripted it any better.

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 19, 2005

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