John Jay’s New Provost: Fierce Advocate for Justice, Passionate Educator, and Avid Video Game Player

Selina Li

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In July, President Karol Mason sent out an email to the John Jay community about a new member on the administration team. Dr. Yi Li was welcomed to serve as the new Provost. The John Jay Sentinel sat down with him to learn more.

Q: Why did you choose John Jay?

A: Simply because of what John Jay stands for, justice. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China, I saw how devastating it was, specifically the lack of education. Many years later, I saw how higher education changed my life. I wanted to work with the most diverse student body that has a President who is passionate about student success.

Q: In your own words, what is the role of the Provost?

A: What the Provost does is usually a mystery to a lot of people. The Provost is the Vice President of Academic Affairs. I work with the President, department chairs, program directors, and other faculty members on ways we can increase the student experience. My job is to work with them to find out how to increase academic engagement, the first year experience, and the semester retention rates. I also support faculty searches, because I know that the teacher and student relationship is very important.

Q: What is your top priority as the Provost of John Jay?

A: Student success. When I was a Professor of Mathematics, one of my students kept falling asleep in class. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even come. I pressured him, but later I realized that this might be someone who had the night shift and probably only got three hours of sleep. That’s why the first step is to build a human connection. At John Jay, we want faculty that are top scholars and we supply them with whatever resources, such as online training sessions and leadership summits, to make sure that they can fully support the students. I want John Jay to be able to support all John Jay students to the fullest extent.

Q: In your time here, what do you see yourself accomplishing?

A: I am trying very hard to see what I could do to increase the graduation and retention rates. Right now, President Mason and I are aiming to get the four-year graduation rate from 30% to 40% by 2025. I want students to be able to find their support system. Whether it’s a peer, an academic advisor, or someone from the wellness center, whoever that person may be, connecting yourself to the campus is important.

Q: As a student in college, what was your experience like?

A: I actually failed my first math exam. I was so disappointed, but my father told me that sometimes you fail in life, and it’s your decision about what you do with that failure. I also failed my first Ph.D. qualifying exam. But again, with the help of my peers and faculty, I was able to overcome it.

Q: What are you usually doing when you’re not at work?

A: Lately I have been doing some wood crafting projects. And although I haven’t been playing a lot recently, I really enjoy video games. God of War, the Witcher, and Final Fantasy are some of my favorites. I began playing to bond with my son, but over time, I ended up playing more than he did.

Q: What do you wish John Jay students knew about you?

A: I want them to know that I am a mathematician. I struggled with passing a course when I was a student, so I want them to know that I have a deep understanding and appreciation of the struggles they face. I know it’s not easy being a student. It’s important to remember that a student can fail, but be equally successful.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: The more students speak to me, the more I can help them. So, don’t be afraid to say hello. I also know that we are in troubling times, but I want to reconfirm John Jay’s values. We condemn violence, especially against women, and the safety of the students is always the top priority of President Mason and myself.