Leading the Way

Leading the Way

President Karol V. Mason and Provost Yi Li talk about their hopes for John Jay, student success, and their mutual admiration for each other.

by Andrea Dawn Clark 

When you first sit down with John Jay College President Karol V. Mason and Provost Yi Li, you see their differences. She likes to “think out loud” while he tends to “process internally.” She likes to binge watch irreverent comedies like Grace and Frankie. “I was watching it on a train ride to Baltimore, and people were looking at me because I was hysterically laughing out loud,” says Mason. While he enjoys gazing at underwater vistas and sea creatures on the The Blue Planet II. “I find it extremely relaxing because of the photography and cinematography,” says Li. She can’t get enough Thai food, while he would eat chocolate cake every day if he could. But through the course of the conversation, you realize how similar they really are. They were both Mathematics majors in college. “I’m a faux Math major, he’s a real one,” says Mason. They’re both genuinely humble and thoughtful people, and most importantly, they share an unwavering commitment to our next generation of students.


Andrea Dawn Clark: We know you were both Mathematics majors in college. What other similarities do the two of you have in common?
Karol Mason: I think we share the same sensibility about what’s funny. I can’t tell jokes. I can only respond to them. I’m a good foil for him.
Yi Li: My wife never says that about me, that I have a good sense of humor, but I’ll take it.


‘‘I think nationally the conversation has gradually begun to change from a ‘college-ready student’ to a ‘student-ready’ college.’’
—Yi Li, Provost


ADC: Student success is a huge priority for the school. What do you think the most important factors are contributing to student success?
KM: I think our students are hugely talented. The students who come to John Jay are coming here with a purpose, to get an education. They’re not here to check off a box like some of my peers when I went to college. And the students who come here are not just thinking about themselves. Our students are asking themselves, how do I make this a better world? How do I make things better for my family and community? And you can see that in the choices they make and everything they do. For me, student success means that we’ve got the right ingredients with these talented students, so how do we give them the resources and the platform to be successful? All of us can point to somebody who took an interest in our development. And with 15,000 students, and the employee base we have, we’ve got to figure out how to give our students that personal connection so that they can have somebody to bounce things off of. They need to know that they’re supported and that we believe in them.
YL: I completely agree. I think nationally the conversation has gradually begun to change from a “college-ready student” to a “student-ready college.”
KM: See, that’s one of those nuggets. I’m not going to forget that one.
YL: How can we be the most ready for them? We have to help them on the first day, help them with everything that we do inside the classroom and outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, we have to talk about pedagogy and how we can improve our instructions with innovations from curriculum assessment. Outside of the classroom, we need more research and experiential venues. Every place a student goes within the College, their sense should be, I’m welcomed here. And under your leadership, we’re going in that direction.


President Karol Mason and Provost Yi Li
Mason and Li sharing their thoughts on student success at John Jay College.


ADC: John Jay takes great pride in our efforts to make higher education accessible for everyone. Why is social mobility important for our students, our communities, and our country?
YL: Social mobility has always been important, but it’s even more important now because we’re going to see in the next 20 or 30 years a huge demographic shift. That shift comes with a tremendous challenge, namely, there are still huge disparities among all the different demographics and their college access. We know that going to college is one of the best indicators of future status in society, lifelong earnings, and whether or not a person makes it into a middle-class income. We know that our democracy depends on a solid middle-class income. This is why, to me, in addition to being a social justice issue, access to higher education is also a national security issue. Because without that, we’re not going to sustain the democracy. We’re not going to sustain our leadership in the world.
KM: I approach it a little bit differently. Yes, we want them to be able to graduate with degrees, because there are huge income differences between people with a college degree and people without, but it’s not just the financial resources that they get. We’re giving them the tools to know how to engage fully in their communities. These tools help them speak up and strategize to get things done in their communities.


‘‘Our students are asking themselves, how do I make this a better world? How can I make things better for my family and community?’’
—Karol V. Mason, President


ADC: President Mason, you’ve said, “Research sits at the core of our mission to educate for justice.” Why is research so vital for our community?
KM: We’ve got students and faculty across the school researching behaviors. This research can help inform us to create a better, more just world based on solid information, rather than just depending on anecdotal information. A John Jay Psychology professor once told her class that most psychology theories were based on studies of middle-aged white men, but that’s not who the country is. She was trying to figure out how to create new research that represents a broader, more diverse perspective. It’s wonderful to see the faculty engaging in research that shows how the world has changed. We can’t rely on those old psychological studies to tell us what’s happening today, because that’s not the population—it wasn’t even the population back then.
YL: Exactly. I think as our faculty and students—who are our future leaders—push the boundaries of policy, politics, and knowledge, they expand the world’s basic human knowledge base. Arming students with research tools and experiential learning really helps them to become true future leaders.


ADC: In the time that you’ve been at John Jay what moments stand out as the most rewarding or the most inspiring?
YL: At this year’s Malcolm/King Awards Breakfast, I talked to each and every student at my table. They were all seniors and they told me what they wanted to do with their lives after graduation. Some wanted to be social workers, some wanted to go on to be lawyers, all of them were excited about graduating and doing work that helped others. Those are the most rewarding moments.
KM: There are so many of those moments, but the common denominator is that they always involve our students’ personal stories. One student, who is now an honor student, told me about how she spent a couple of years in Rikers waiting to be charged for something they never charged her with. She had been admitted to John Jay before this happened, and when she finally got out, she came to John Jay and said, “I was admitted here three years ago, and I want to come here.” To see her as an honor student now, getting the opportunity to work at the National Network for Safe Communities, that’s inspiring. Whenever I’m having a rough day, I just need to hear stories like hers and I say to myself, yeah, that’s why I do this.


President Karol Mason and Provost Yi Li walking down the hallway

ADC: Now it’s fun facts time. If you had to pick a theme song for your life , what would it be and why?
KM: Jill Scott’s “Golden.” It’s a reminder that you ought to enjoy life. You ought to see what’s good about life and embrace it in a positive way.
YL: One song that really moved me was in the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much.
KM: A Hitchcock movie.
YL: In the movie, the son is kidnapped and in order to let her son know that his parents were trying to rescue him, the mother sings this song, whatever will be, will be. What song was that?
KM: “Que Sera, Sera.”
YL: Right. It’s the care of the mother, who is really trying to rescue and comfort the child, that really moved me.


ADC: Last question, What advice would you give to your younger self?
YL: Find a good mentor and think about your career.
KM: I was insecure, probably until my 50s. I would tell my younger self that everybody feels that way. It’s a part of the human experience. Don’t think that other people are more confident than you. Just learn to trust yourself.