For 66 years, Mary Lai, 91, treasurer emerita and senior adviser for Long Island University, has had an insider's view of what works and what doesn't in the business of higher education. After earning an accounting and economics degree from LIU, Lai was working as an accountant for Arthur Young & Co. when LIU's president courted her back in 1946 to help straighten out the books.
At the time, she thought she'd only stay a year. But she never left.
It was Lai who signed the check to buy the land for the Brookville campus from Mrs. Joseph E. Davies, aka Marjorie Merriweather Post, then the wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, daughter of food magnate Charles W. Post and the mother of actress Dina Merrill.
Lai later became one of the first women in the country to rise to the rank of college chief financial officer.
She worked for nine college presidents, survived sharp dips in enrollment and continues to handle projects in finance and actively approach the mega-rich (such as Warren Buffett) on LIU's behalf.
The Mary M. Lai Finance building was named on her 50th anniversary with LIU. This year, the National Association of College and University Business Officers presented Lai with an inaugural Pathfinder Award: She is probably the longest-serving college business officer in the nation.
In the 1940s what made you choose such a rare career path for a woman?
I loved anything that was business, understanding business, how the banking system worked. . . . When I graduated the war was just beginning, and there were no teaching jobs, but the field opened up for public accounting for women. I was the . . . first woman that this firm hired. It was a midsize accounting firm. It became Grant Thornton.
Which programs are the biggest draws for students?
The health professions and health area.
What are some of the largest changes that affected university life?
The students themselves have been the biggest change. They need so much more care and attention now than they did years ago. For example, we didn't have advisers years ago. The budget for student services might have been 2 or 3 percent, now it's about 15 percent of the total budget.
What are some higher-education trends?
Schools are trying to improve their revenue from endowment . . . they're being more aggressive in terms of investing, getting into some hedge funds. They're taking greater risks. They're trying to improve their income and it's been working.
What did Warren Buffett say when you reached out to him?
He was very nice. He wrote me back and said, "You must've made a mistake; you couldn't have been 90."
What school does. "We help people to discover their full potential, empowering them to become productive citizens."
Employees. 2,066 full time; 1,146 on Long Island; 1,424 part time; 752 part time on Long Island.
Roles they play. Faculty, clerical and administrative functions.
Revenue. $377.6 million