By Julia Greco
Since April 1946, a woman with a commitment and love for higher education has played an active role in the affairs of Long Island University, from negotiating the purchase of the C.W. Post campus in 1947 to becoming the university’s first Chief Financial Officer.
She is referred to as the “Mother of the University” by former University President David Steinberg. Her dominance in LIU affairs still holds today, as she celebrates 70 years with the University. This woman is Mary Lai.
From the start of Lai’s long career at Long Island University, she has proven her commitment, hard work ethic, and extreme care for the University. Her years at LIU began with her decision to attend the LIU Brooklyn campus for college in the fall of 1938. “I was on a scholarship at Long Island University, when scholarships were only based on merit,” Lai said. At that time, scholarships were only given to the top students, she explained.
Although Mrs. Lai had received scholarships to other colleges such as New York University, Long Island University was the college for her. She chose LIU because it started in September, unlike the other colleges that started in January. In addition, Long Island University offered classes in the summer, making it ideal for her.
Shortly after her graduation from college, Mrs. Lai began to learn about public accounting. In many of her jobs, she was the only woman in the office. “When I went to IBM school in 1960, there were 54 people from higher education and I was the only woman,” she said. However, this didn’t deter her. “Being the only woman didn’t bother me because I was doing my job.”
Esther Cho, senior director of the LIU IT program management office (PMO), said that Mrs. Lai is an inspiration for women. She admires her for everything she has accomplished, including caring for her children.
“Mrs. Lai embodies what is possible for all women who put their minds to it and she inspires me to try harder every day and to make every moment count,” Cho said.
Mrs. Lai opened the doors for women who came after her, including Dr. Kimberly Cline, the current President of Long Island University, who is the university’s first female president.
In March 1946, Mrs. Lai was offered a position at LIU. She explained that, “At first I was hesitant to take the job as bursar, because I learned so much in public accounting.” But she felt that “[she] owed the university something for having had a scholarship and [she will] help [them] out, and come for a year.” And just like that, the empire of Mary Lai at LIU began.
“I put so much of myself in that [first] year. We went from 800 students to 5,000 in one year…. I got so involved in it. I couldn’t give it up… LIU became my baby,” she said.
Peggy Riggs, the university’s academic budget affairs officer, said that “her intelligence has always been present in her life and she used it to improve other people’s lives, especially the lives at LIU.”
Mrs. Lai explained that, “necessity is the mother of invention. I would find ways that would save [the university] money, [in- cluding] getting loans at inexpensive rates.”
Mrs. Lai dedicated so much of her time to LIU that she says, “there isn’t a piece of paper here that isn’t mine; there isn’t any procedure that isn’t mine.” She helped sculpt the LIU that is known today. Mrs. Lai explained that, “having been a student at LIU, I wanted it to be a better place, so I was working hard to make it better.” Riggs agrees. “The first word that would come to my mind would be dedicated. She’s dedicated to LIU,” Riggs said.
Mrs. Lai said that her favorite part of LIU is “[getting to] see the students when they graduate. They mature in those four years and it’s wonderful to see. The parents are so happy and it’s such a happy time.”
Lai has even attended freshmen registration. “I always worked at registration because I would be able to meet the students as they came in,” she said. She explained that “the work we do is to help the student achieve their goal and the student’s goal is graduation.”
Mrs. Lai has mentored and helped so many LIU administrators. “Mrs. Lai built relationships,” Cho said. “It wasn’t about the project all the time…She built relationships across the university.”
Linda Noyes, associate controller for compensation operation and Tax Compliance, said, “If I needed any information on anything, she was the source. She helped me get a better understanding of how LIU worked and because of this initial relationship she has always been very kind to me during my eleven years here.”
Mrs. Lai has received numerous awards and she is the founder of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. She has paved the way for LIU students for the past 70 years. Into her 90’s, she continues to contribute to the university in so many ways.
Thank you, Mary Lai.