(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.)
Tough, tenacious, smart as a whip. That’s how people close to Shirley Ort describe her. As UNC’s associate provost and director of scholarships and financial aid, Shirley and her colleagues administer $220 million in student aid to 15,000 students a year. She came up with the concept of the Carolina Covenant and the logistics to make it work. Even before database management software evolved, Shirley kept track of the three-dimensional puzzle of the maximum aid she could award over a four-year period without overspending; all federal and state regulations on grants and loans; and hundreds of restricted scholarships — available only to, say, left-handed biochemistry majors from Hoke County.
But there’s another side to Shirley — the side that invites students to lunch just to see how they’re doing, that makes time to work through an individual student’s crisis, that calls a longtime colleague and friend, as she did Mary Flanagan on Valentine’s Day, to say stop by the office refrigerator to pick up a present (Flanagan finds a homemade meatloaf with her name on it).
“Shirley knows I love her meatloaf,” Mary said. “Who else makes you a meatloaf for Valentine’s Day?”
For Shirley, the meat and potatoes of her existence is making a college education affordable to all qualified young people. As a teenager in rural Michigan, she had no expectations of going to college until the summer after her high school graduation, when her school principal rapped on her screen door, carrying one application for a small private college not far from home. He said that if Shirley were admitted, Spring Arbor College would find a way for her to stay.
Shirley was accepted three days before classes began. She borrowed what would be the equivalent today of $36,000 while getting her bachelor’s in history with honors, and worked full time her junior and senior years to meet her obligations. Going to college changed her life.
“I learned what a lot of people have learned: Once you get a little education, you want more,” Shirley said. A decade later, she obtained a master’s in medieval history at Western Michigan University, and eight years after that, earned a law degree at Seattle University School of Law.
Shirley fully intended to stay in the Pacific Northwest, where she was dean of student development at Seattle Pacific University, then deputy director for student financial aid at the Higher Education Coordinating Board in Olympia, Washington. But Elson Floyd ’78 (’82 MED, ’84 EdD), who had been her boss in Olympia, recruited her to Carolina in 1997. That move has since changed the lives of more than a hundred thousand young people.
Some administrators may do their jobs as efficiently as Shirley, said former Provost Dick Richardson, “but I’ve never known any with a greater heart or compassion for students.”
Her passion for students and great capacity for love, he said, doesn’t detract from her ability to be a strong advocate. “This beautiful, white-haired lady, she looks like she could be pushed over, and people have tried that,” Dick said. “But it would be easier to move the Old Well.”
Shirley has earned the respect of administrators at universities across the nation with the Carolina Covenant program. Nearly 100 universities have copied the path-breaking concept of enabling very low-income students to graduate debt-free. Then-Chancellor James Moeser said all he did was come up with the name.
“Shirley is the most knowledgeable financial aid person I’ve ever met,” Moeser said. “She understands the very complicated legal framework of federal and state aid and how it all fits together.”
In the past decade, Shirley has received a number of awards, including the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, the Eleanor S. Morris Distinguished Service Award and the Phi Delta Kappa Outstanding Leadership Award, and has been inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece. She hosted a GAA trip to Greece, and since has returned there several times on her own. Shirley is a trustee of The College Board, and remains an active member of the Washington State Bar Association. She has been a member of the Commission on Access, Admission and Success in Higher Education.
Mary Flanagan, who works with Shirley on Johnston Scholars and other programs, said, “Shirley has a rare combination of the ability to see the big picture and understand the implications.”
That touches on what Shirley sees as her most important accomplishment: policy integration. She has developed a national training workshop to teach young student-aid officers to understand the “why” of financial aid, not just the technical and regulatory details of “how.”
“Our mission is to remove financial barriers for students and to protect access for those who without such assistance could not afford an education and couldn’t realize their potential,” Shirley said. “The success of our society depends upon whether we as a nation still know how to do that.”
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. Recipients of the 2012 Distinguished Service Medals are Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and financial aid; John Ellison Jr. ’69, a former member of the Board of Trustees who helped guide UNC’s academic planning; William “Bill” Harrison Jr. ’66, who helped steer the University’s global aspirations; and Randy Jones ’79, former chair of the alumni association.