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Business Officer Magazine
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Mary Lai on Finances, Faculty, and Family

The recipient of the association's first Pathfinder Award, presented during the NACUBO 2012 Annual Meeting, shares her observations.

By Karla Taylor

After 66 years as a business officer, professional pioneer, mentor, wife, and mother, Long Island University's Mary M. Lai has formed strong opinions on many aspects of life on campus and beyond. Here's a sampling.

Read more about Lai and her career accomplishments in "A Woman for All Seasons" in the September 2012 issue of Business Officer.

On balancing higher education's costs and mission

In a 1996 Business Officer story, Lai wrote: "Everyone recognizes the need for change, containment and even reduction of costs, alternatives sources for financing education, consortia to maximize resources, elimination of duplicative serves, and greater faculty and staff productivity. We all know what needs to be done, but getting it done is wrought with turmoil."

Lai hasn't changed her mind since writing those words 16 years ago. Although many institutions have taken on the challenges she lists, "it has not been easy, and there is still more to do."

The problem, Lai says, is figuring out how to reduce expenditures without damaging the university's ability to achieve its mission. Especially troublesome: controlling costs and making sure institutional plans reflect both realistic budgeting and campuswide buy-in. "I would like to see greater participation by the faculty in the development of the strategic plan. While faculty representatives are involved, these representatives do not always keep the people they represent informed, nor do they necessarily reflect everyone's views."

On the business officer's expanding role

In 1946, when she ran Long Island University's financial operations as its bursar, Lai's major duties involved collecting tuition and handling payroll. Now, she says, business officers have to be experts on wide swaths of campus administration including-but not limited to-the academic programs, student services, construction and architecture, human resources, technology, and of course banking, accounting, purchasing, and endowment investments.

In addition to managing a broader portfolio of responsibilities, today's business officers must serve as campus diplomats, calling on all their persuasive skills to weigh competing priorities and convince the affected parties to understand others' points of view. "For example, academic officers may want to add some full-time professors to replace adjuncts. Business officers will try to persuade them that the need to replace leaky roofs has to take priority. Although they used to work on providing the funds for functions that other officers determined, now they are much more involved in the total picture."

On the ideal blend of education and experience

When asked how to become a well-rounded business officer, Lai recommends starting the way she did, with a solid liberal arts education with a major in economics and a minor in accounting. Then an MBA and law courses in contract management will help once you get your foot in the door of a university business office. Keep your eyes open for opportunities for promotion and exposure to various functional areas, such as the budget office ("which teaches you about the whole institution"). If you aspire to be a controller, earn a CPA and consider taking time out to work for a public accounting firm that specializes in universities. Throughout your career, get a management education by reading widely.

Three things Lai wishes would change

  •  Federal government compliance issues. "Just in the area of payroll and pension administration, we have had to add to staff to keep up with all the regulations. I am on the university's pension committee, and I cannot help but think how much easier it was years ago. Nor do I think all this government intrusion has made pensions better."
  • Faculty productivity. "I sit on the board of a private institution whose tuition is 60 percent of most of others' in the area because its faculty teaching load is 33.3 percent greater. Moreover, the faculty are not relieved of teaching responsibilities to serve on committees regarding tenure, promotion, curriculum, and so on. The outside world is very critical of faculty workloads, which are one of the causes of the bad public perception of higher education."
  • Faculty and staff collective bargaining. "I wish we had never permitted a climate to develop that made faculty and staff feel they needed the protection that a union provides. It changes the collegiality of our institutions."

One thing that's changed for the better

"Most business officers used to be very rigid—things were either black or white, with no gray areas," Lai says. "They did not consider the position of the student, faculty, or staff member with whom they dealt."

Her greatest contribution, she now believes, was as "a role model of a somewhat different business officer, a more humane and understanding CFO." She was constantly trying to find ways to help a student who couldn't afford his or her next tuition payment or a faculty member who needed assistance with an insurance claim that was denied.

"You have to care for people," she says. "In the long run it makes people more loyal to the institution because it's not a cold place, but more like a family. I think it makes people work harder and care more. Faculty will do a better job of teaching and be more productive. And as for students-I can't tell you how many said to me, 'If it hadn't been for you, I never could have done it.' "

On loving both family and job

"My husband and I were married 60 years when he died nine years ago," says Lai. (William T. "Buck" Lai, was, among other things, athletic director at LIU, the Merchant Marine Academy, and the New York Institute of Technology.) "I was never a threat to him. He was a strong athlete, so he was sure of himself. He adored me as I adored him. He didn't even mind my continuing to work [after he retired] since we had young grandchildren he took care of while their mother went to graduate school.

"I never left LIU because it became part of my life. I was married 10 years before we had children. I didn't think I could have any, so the university became my baby. When my two sons were born I thought I would quit, but I couldn't—you don't stop loving your first child when your second one is born. I prayed for guidance: 'If it is right for me to work, remove the obstacles; if it is wrong, put obstacles in my way.' There were no obstacles." (A friend of Lai's mother who had grown children just happened to need a job when Lai needed help and became the family's treasured child-care provider.)

"Even now my sons know I consider the university my third son. My sister says the university means more to me than anyone. I disagree. It's like a member of my family; I love them all equally."

KARLA TAYLOR, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business topics for Business Officer.