A Woman for All Seasons
Inaugural recipient of NACUBO's new Pathfinder Award for lifetime achievement, Mary M. Lai has exhibited a pioneering spirit for more than six decades.
By Karla Taylor
As a recent graduate working for Big Eight accounting firm Arthur Young and Co. in 1946, Mary Lai was a young woman off to a promising start in a business career. She envisioned pursuing a CPA and perhaps eventually an academic post—until she happened to run into one of her Long Island University professors on the New York City subway.
The professor told LIU President Tristram Walker Metcalfe about the encounter, and that same night President Metcalfe called Lai to ask if she would come help her alma mater get its business affairs in order. Serving as LIU's bursar wasn't in her plans, but Lai said yes, promising herself it would be just for a year.
More than 66 years later, Mary Lai still works at Long Island University, New York. As treasurer emerita and senior adviser, she dedicates herself to keeping the university in order by coming to work every day in the Mary M. Lai Finance Building—named for her on her 50th anniversary at LIU in 1996. Over the years, she rose to become vice president for business affairs. Accustomed to being the only woman in rooms full of decision makers, she also served as the first female chief elected officer of the Eastern Association of College and University Business Officers (EACUBO) in 1974–75 and then of NACUBO a few years later. To advance the standing of business officers, she's long been an active promoter of the profession to men and, especially, to women.
As a pioneer in the world of higher education administration, Lai recently received a high honor from NACUBO: the association's first Pathfinder Award, presented at a gala dinner at the Library of Congress in July in Washington, D.C. Created as part of NACUBO's 50th anniversary celebration, the award recognizes "individuals whose lives, and careers in higher education business management, are inspirations to college and university business officers."
"Mary is a person who has always followed her passion," said President and CEO John Walda in July, announcing the Pathfinder Award to NACUBO 2012 Annual Meeting attendees in a general session. "In her choices and actions, one sees a consistent commitment to cause, to values, to leadership. She has said that she loves helping people, and it is obvious that this love has been a driving force in her life. It is hard to imagine many people more dedicated than Mary Lai to higher education."
"Mary is the perfect candidate for the first Pathfinder Award," says Roger D. Lowe, a member of the anniversary awards committee, 1981–82 president of the NACUBO board, and senior vice president at Wichita State University, Kansas. "She was a real pathfinder in paving the way for women to serve in our profession, in that she was one of the first women to hold the position of chief business officer at a major university. Mary cut a wide swath that paved the way for a number of others to become chief business officers."
A Focused but Welcoming Presence
When someone who starts out as a temporary bursar winds up having a campus building named for her, there's a story there—a story that mirrors the growing significance of business officers in higher education and of women in finance.
Now 91, "Mary could be known as 'Ms. Enthusiasm'" says Lowe. "She bubbles with enthusiasm for her work at her own institution, and that carries over into NACUBO. She has gone out of her way to make young people welcome to our business."
Despite her vivacity, "she was by no means a pushover," says Janice M. Abraham, president and CEO of United Educators Insurance in Chevy Chase, Maryland, who first met the woman she calls "an icon of higher education" in 1979. "As you could tell anytime you sat in a meeting with Mary, she had fire in the belly and steel in the back when it came to making sure that what went on was professional and ethical. If you went to battle with her, you needed to be prepared because she was always such a bulldog. When she was right—and I don't remember a time when she wasn't—she won."
At NACUBO meetings, Abraham recalls, you could count on seeing Lai in the front row of every session, listening intently and asking probing questions. Afterward in the hallways, she'd take your arm, lean in, and look you straight in the eye while asking about both your job and your family. "She has an intensity, but not a sharp intensity—you feel warm, like there's this heat transfer," Abraham says.
"She's effective because her comments are on point but she doesn't try to dominate—that's her style," says James E. "Jay" Morley Jr., NACUBO's president and CEO from 1995 to 2006. "The tenor of her comments was always directed at improving the profession and doing what was best for students, not for her own agenda. And she always had a presence. When Mary spoke, everybody listened."
"She's a terrific person, a great mentor, and a wonderful businessperson," says Frank Kurre, national managing partner with Grant Thornton, who has worked with Lai on professional and volunteer projects and has benefited from her career counseling. "She was always asking, 'How can I help someone else? How can I be of service?' Mary's life has been one of love of family and friends and service to the community. She is, in a very real sense, the heart of the institution she has served for so many decades."
Cultivating a Career Path
One of Mary Lai's chief contributions, says Abraham, was making a career in higher education administration look desirable. "An awful lot of women and men have been open to it because she pulled it off with such professionalism," Abraham says. "She made it look like a credible career for a well-educated, ambitious, engaged professional. I had a career on Wall Street, and I'm not sure I would have come back to higher education if I hadn't seen her and thought, 'That's a really cool job.'"
As a 25-year-old in 1946, Lai herself was not convinced that a college business office was very desirable; she accepted the bursar job only out of loyalty to her alma mater. Since the previous business officer had left the year before, the tiny staff had managed to do little more than take in tuition payments and make payroll. To make matters worse, the university had yet to recover from plunging enrollment during World War II and a bankruptcy filing in 1943. Lai told herself she would get the business operation in order, then leave to pursue a CPA and follow her childhood dream of teaching at a university.
But events conspired to change her mind. For one thing, LIU offered her husband, William T. "Buck" Lai, a job as assistant professor in health and physical education and assistant director of athletics. For another, the bursar job appealed to a deep current of sentiment that has guided much of her life: The university needed her, and she couldn't resist helping. "My husband's acceptance of the offer was all I needed to continue in a role I had come to love."
In an essay from a 2012 monograph commemorating NACUBO's 50th anniversary (see sidebar,"How Far We've Come"), Lai notes the many ways in which her career reflects the evolution of the business office from World War II to the present. In the 1940s, large campuses' finances were generally handled by someone called the business officer-almost always a man. But LIU was among the many smaller schools that hired female bursars to be chief financial officers. Lai initially devoted much time to creating manual tracking systems and training employees, but she also handled payroll. Faculty received checks based on the number of credits they taught; staff were paid with $10 and $20 bills that Lai personally counted into envelopes.
In the 1950s and 1960s, business offices gained both sophistication and staff as postwar enrollment boomed, the federal government became a player, and campuses grew more complex. Lai persuaded LIU's president that instead of hiring a new assistant registrar, he should invest the money in something she heard about at an EACUBO conference: an IBM tabulating machine that used punch cards to automate student registration and billing. The age of technology had arrived for LIU's business staff.
Many schools had the bursar report to a newly hired director of finance or controller, who usually had an accounting background and was almost always a man. Eventually vice presidents were added to deal with projects brought about by the Higher Education Facilities Acts of 1963 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. Although the staff at this new layer often came from outside of academe—frequently the military—Lai was promoted from within.
A slumping U.S. economy brought new challenges in the 1970s, when enrollment, federal research support, and the building boom slowed and colleges struggled with both finances and shifting missions. Universities began looking to the business office for solutions to their financial problems. "As the CBO, I didn't simply record financial activities anymore; I usually led the budget discussions," Lai says. "This meant making sure everyone on the committee understood what each part of the budget represented—and that if one part increased, then another needed to decrease to maintain stability."
Around this time, Lai recalls that Joe Whiteside, the treasurer of New York University, said to her, "Isn't it great to have everyone listening to you for a change?"
Breaking All the Barriers
By the 1960s and 1970s, people far beyond LIU were listening to Mary Lai. Already active regionally in EACUBO, she was delighted when NACUBO was founded in 1962. A national organization played into her enthusiasm for people helping people, especially since federal involvement was making higher education more complicated and professionals from smaller schools could benefit from contacts across the country.
Lai became NACUBO's chief elected officer in 1979–80, two years before Roger Lowe. He remembers her emphasis on improved professional development and on raising the visibility of business officers through joint lobbying efforts with the college presidents who belonged to the American Council on Education.
"From the time I met her in the mid-1970s, Mary was bigger than life," recalls Jay Morley, former NACUBO CEO. NACUBO went through difficult times after Lai rotated off the board in the 1980s, and "she was a person we all looked to for thoughts on how to refocus. She was a force for ensuring that we always did the right things for our
institutions and our students."
She also wanted to do the right thing for business officers, regardless of gender. In fact, Lai was the one who "broke all the barriers—as a professional, a working mother, a vice president, and president of NACUBO," says Karol Kain Gray, vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "She reminds me of Hillary Clinton and other women of great accomplishment who bring others along."
Lai never minded being called "first woman to ...."—but she hates hearing that she was doing a man's job, since a job doesn't have a gender. Even so, she decided at an early age to present herself with impeccable professionalism. Early on, she was unexpectedly called to a Veteran's Administration meeting about how to handle billing for returning soldiers. In her braids and cotton dress, "I looked 16—they must have had a hard time accepting me as the university bursar. I decided then and there that I would never come to work without looking the part." It was the beginning of a 60-year tradition of wearing business suits—always with a skirt, not slacks.
Women have indeed made tremendous strides, she says. But there is more to do. "Certainly there are many women who are associate CFOs—women with professionalism, intelligence, analytical ability, and good common sense—who could be promoted to CFO," she says. "However, there is still some preference for male CFOs, something that is changing slowly but surely." Some presidents who saw Lai's capabilities came away as converts. One said to her, "I was impressed with you as a woman, so I thought I could hire a woman, too." And he did.
Lai has mentored many business officers, but especially women. Karol Gray called to consult Lai before accepting a new position as vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina after 33 years at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Lai encouraged Gray to consider a challenge that would take her out of her comfort zone: "She said, 'If you feel you have the talent and you want to grow, do it now.' It was a positive conversation about taking risks."
A junior staffer at NACUBO when Lai was its chief elected officer in 1979, Janice Abraham was struck by how Lai combined a strong leadership style with genuine warmth. Years later, Abraham had earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and found her new career as an international banker unfulfilling. So she visited Lai to ask for career advice. Lai listened thoughtfully, picked up the phone, and started dialing CFOs, campus presidents, and search firms to make introductions. She went beyond mentorship to what Abraham calls sponsorship—putting her own reputation on the line to say, "You should hire Janice."
For every career move Abraham has made since, "Mary Lai has always been right there with me, saying, 'Why are you thinking about this move? What will it do for you? I'm so proud of you! Keep it up!' And she always finishes with a warm hug. That's Mary's gift. She believed in LIU, the profession, NACUBO, and Janice Abraham, and each tried to get better because of her."
Sometimes a reassuring example in high places makes all the difference, says Kimberly Cline, who was a business officer before becoming president of Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 2008. In the 24 years she and Lai have known each other, Cline has learned a lot from her about leadership, work ethic, and willingness to reach out to others. But as a mother of three, Cline says one other thing mattered as well: "Mary Lai showed that you could balance work with having children, since she had a wonderful marriage, her two children, and now her grandchildren."
Pursuing the Greatest Satisfaction
In 2011, to celebrate Lai's 90th birthday and her 65th anniversary with Long Island University, the leaders of LIU wanted to give her a commemorative dinner. Lai said no; she wanted to raise scholarship money instead. A fundraising dinner then, the leaders suggested. Again she said no; that would cost too much. So what about a fund drive to raise $90,000? Again, no: $90,000 wasn't enough.
In the end, she personally oversaw a low-key campaign that, with little more than a targeted letter from the president and some calls from her, raised $325,000 for the Mary M. Lai Endowed Scholarship Fund. Next she'd like to work on a scholarship to honor Buck, her husband, who died in 2003 after a long career at LIU and other campuses.
"The greatest satisfaction I have ever had in life is being able to help," Lai says. "That's the reason I continue to work. Money could never give me as much joy as helping someone."
KARLA TAYLOR, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business topics for Business Officer.