(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
One of four children born to a teacher and a nurse, and with a twin brother competing with her for college tuition aid from their parents, Karol Mason ’79 understood the impact that cost increases could have on a student’s immediate future.
As a UNC trustee she always would ask: “This action we’re considering, what does this mean to the individual student? Is anyone going to be affected detrimentally by this, and if so, how do we mitigate that?”
Once, as she chaired the Audit and Finance Committee, she listened to an impassioned speech by the student body president, imploring the trustees to keep Carolina affordable for all students. The speech brought tears to Karol’s eyes. She listened to assurances from the admissions director and the director of scholarships and student aid that set-asides for need-based financial aid were built into the increase. Then she composed herself and made a motion to raise tuition.
“She thought I was a Republican,” Karol quipped.
It took a long time for the student leader to understand that Karol had made the right decision that night. Raising the tuition was a necessary step to protect the value of the students’ education, and that took priority. Trustees watchers saw two things in that gut-wrenching vote: the ability to make tough decisions under pressure and Karol’s unwavering advocacy for the best interests of students.
Karol accepted a seat on the Board of Trustees in 2001 and served for eight years. In addition to chairing the Audit and Finance Committee, she was a member of the Endowment Fund. Roger Perry ’71, who was chair of the trustees while Karol was vice chair, considers her “a very astute attorney” who asked extraordinarily good questions and provided great analysis of the legal issues facing the University. But above all, she was a staunch defender of students, particularly the less affluent.
Karol grew up in Amityville, N.Y., a small town on Long Island where she went to school with the same children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Despite her gregarious nature, part of the appeal of Carolina was that she didn’t know anyone here, and no one knew her.
“College is the place you learn who you are and develop into the adult you will become,” she says. “I loved Carolina because I didn’t know a soul. I could stretch and grow and figure out who I was.”
And stretch she did. A math major, an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister, an RA on a floor of football players, and one of eight black women who roomed together in Hinton James and had T-shirts made to show they were from “the Chocolate Suite,” she bridged different worlds, some black, some white. Her senior year, she received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in recognition of her humanitarian work.
After law school at the University of Michigan, she commenced a practice that included a concentration in higher education financing. She joined the elite firm of Alston & Bird and became the first African American woman to make partner in a major Atlanta law practice. Then, in 2008, she used her talents and network to help elect Barack Obama President. Last year, she took herself off her career track to fill a senior position in the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I’d always intended to do public service,” she says. “I’m just a slow learner. That’s why it took me 27 years to get here.”
Karol was vice chair of the search committee that recommended Holden Thorp ’86 to UNC System President Erskine Bowles ’67 as chancellor. She was the trustee representative on the committee that recommended Bill Roper as CEO of UNC Health Care and dean of the medical school. She has served on the board of the Arts & Sciences Foundation and on the Board of Visitors. Every year, she books a table at the Black Alumni Reunion awards banquet and invites former classmates to join her. She was among the early recipients of the GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumni Awards.
“She’s somebody who combines a pragmatic understanding that comes from her work as a lawyer with a passion for the University and making sure we get the best talent working in the University,” Holden Thorp said.
Her work at the Justice Department involves grant program management and gives her an opportunity to make a difference on a large scale.
“We’re doing some phenomenal things that will help people’s lives,” Karol says. “It won’t get splashed across the front page of the news, but it will change people’s lives for the better.”
Quietly, studiously, Karol Mason is still working to improve the lives of others.