It’s been open season on UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser for some time now. Whether it’s been over the clumsy (and expensive) firing of the university’s counsel, the school’s steamroller approach to expansion, or the relentless courting of donations from fat cats, the chancellor has taken his licks ever since he arrived at South Building in 2000. No one group can claim a franchise on Moeser bashing, though, and Moeser can take some solace in the fact that he has managed to upset Carolina supporters and detractors across the political and social spectrum.

Despite the clatter, Moeser has, at times, taken quite a few applaudable stands, including his defense of academic freedom, which, thanks to the well-publicized flap over the Q’uran excerpts in the school’s 2002 freshman reading choice, is now an annual event.

Add to the list of laudable efforts the Carolina Covenant, announced at Moeser’s State of the University address Oct. 1.

The program is aimed at stemming a disturbing trend at the university of the people–the drop in applications by students from low-income households. It is no secret that Carolina has gotten considerably pricier over the years. Tuition has tripled in less than a decade.

Moeser has supported the increases over the years, backing the claim that the increases are needed to keep up with competition for top faculty. But many of the across-the-board increases approved were clearly more about the General Assembly’s need for cash and its unwillingness to raise any tax of any kind. Message: It’s OK to screw ma, pa and their kids in the form of tuition hikes, but don’t dare boost the price of their smokes.

When he took office, Moeser said he said he wanted to fulfill the late Michael Hooker’s dream of transforming the school into the top public university in the country. But that dream is interpreted differently by powerful legislators and Rams Clubbers who want to see Carolina emulate prestigious private institutions, and the Tar Heels of the old school who want to preserve access and the school’s traditional mission to lift up the state and its people.

The administration in recent years has leaned toward the former, even flirting with the notion that the UNC system ought to morph into a two- (or is it three?) tiered animal a la California, with the research universities even harder to get into and afford. The tuition hikes, the focus on private donors and the recent moves to raise the number of out of state students have certainly bolstered the worry that Carolina is telling students from the state’s poorer families (and school systems) not to bother applying.

That’s why the Covenant is so important. Under the plan, students from lower income households who would have to take out loans in order to cover costs would be able to work on campus (maximum 12 hours per week) instead. The university would pick up the difference between students’ grants and tuition. That gives potential students some hope that they can afford an education in Chapel Hill and helps graduates get through their first years out of college without so much of a debt burden.

Moeser, of course, didn’t come up with this idea on his own. The school’s chief financial aid officer, Shirley Ort, a Michigan sharecropper’s daughter who had to work her way through school, and admissions director Jerry Lucido deserve a big piece of the credit.

But give the chancellor his due. A quote from his speech announcing the Covenant–that as the nation’s first public university, access is in Carolina’s DNA–made The New York Times, and made those fighting to keep the school affordable breathe a little easier.