An Interview with John Jay College’s Fifth President, Karol V. Mason

In May of 2017, the Board of Trustees at CUNY appointed Karol V. Mason, a legal pioneer and former United States Assistant Attorney General, as the fifth president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In her long legal career in both the private and public sectors, President Mason has been an exceptional voice for equality, fairness and criminal justice reform, issues that are at the heart of John Jay’s mission. She was a leader in the Obama Administration on juvenile justice issues, bail reform and reentry for individuals leaving prison. In her distinguished career at Alston & Bird LLP, she was the first African American woman elected as chair of the management committee at any major national firm, and at John Jay College, she is the first woman and person of color to serve as President.

After assuming office on August 1st, President Mason spoke with Rama Sudhakar, Chief Communications Officer.

Rama Sudhakar: What was your childhood like?
Karol Mason: I grew up in Amityville, Long Island. I have a twin brother named Kevin; we were very competitive and both of us did well in school. My mother was the first of two black teachers on Long Island, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP. Even though she had two Master‘s degrees, she
had to work as a domestic until the lawsuit was settled. My parents always emphasized education, which is why this job was perfect for me, because I know firsthand that education changes lives.

President Mason Convocation
President Mason and members of the faculty prepare to lead the
New Student Convocation ceremony.

RS: When did you decide to go to law school?
KM: I decided I wanted to be a lawyer because I saw that civil rights lawyers were changing the world. At UNC Chapel Hill, I had many opportunities, like being in the North Carolina Fellows Program, as well as a Resident Advisor. After that, I went straight to the University of Michigan for law school. The intellectual experience of law school was fabulous; I loved learning; and now I love being able to see that the friends I’ve
made there have gone on to do wonderful things.

RS: You worked for almost 30 years at Alston & Bird, where you became their first black female partner. What was that like?
KM: Well, that was in 1990, and back then I thought it was interesting, but here we are in 2017 and I’m still the first. I’m the first woman and person of color to be President of John Jay. I grew up thinking that you have the responsibility to open doors for others because there have been people before me who opened doors for me. When people ask me, how can I help, I always say you have to do for others what others have
done for you. You pay it forward.

President Mason with Mascot on the Jay Walk
President Mason with the Bloodhound mascot and with students
on the Jay Walk.

RS: When did you know you wanted to go into public service and why?
KM: Since I was a kid, I was raised thinking that public service is a part of life. I was a girl scout all the way through 12th grade. I taught at night in an adult literacy program when I was in high school. Later, I served on the Board of Trustees at UNC Chapel Hill for eight years because I wanted to serve a university that did so much for me to change the course of my life.

RS: Much of your life’s work has focused on fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system. What do you think are the most important issues in the field today?
KM: John Jay represents opportunity for young people, and it’s that opportunity that we need to provide for people involved with the criminal justice system. I resist the term atrisk because from listening to young people, they say to call them at-hope. We need to equip people with what they need to be successful upon release from our prisons and jails, like access to jobs, education, and family. That’s exactly what we’re doing with the Prisoner Reentry Institute—we are providing opportunities for people to be successful when they go back to their communities.

I’m also concerned about how we criminalize poverty. People end up in jail because they’re poor, and don’t have the resources—to pay the fees and fines and bail—that needlessly draw them deeper into the system.

RS: What was the defining factor that led you to take on this role as President?
KM: I didn’t want to be a college president—I wanted to be the President of John Jay, because of what John Jay does and represents. John Jay students are often the first generation to attend college. John Jay provides a wonderful opportunity to educate future leaders whose perspectives are critical for our country.

This is a dream job because education has the power to transform people’s lives. I want to be here for the long haul and end my professional career at John Jay, and see what these young people do to lead our country.

RS: What do you think differentiates John Jay from other schools?
KM: The students. They’re so bright and passionate. They’re grounded in justice and they want to be in a place focused specifically on fairness and justice. Students are hungry for an education here. I love that! So student success is my primary goal. That’s why we’re here.

RS: What are some of your greatest strengths?
KM: I’m not a traditional candidate, but I have had deep exposure to academia, and I’m a continual learner. I’m also able to listen and build consensus. At John Jay, it is more difficult than one might think to build consensus among so many different groups with different perspectives, but I think I’m prepared for the challenge.

My experience in the DOJ administration also lets me make connections for students. For example, I recently connected a panel of students to the national leaders of the movement to reduce youth incarceration. I want to keep making those connections.

President Mason with StudentsRS: What keeps you up at night?
KM: Money. I worry about the College not having enough of it, because there’s so much need here. Recently, I walked home listening to students talk about job choices. I want students to have the economic freedom to focus on being students without the worry of money.  We need resources for a variety of things. We need money to provide scholarships to students, to offer paid internships and study abroad opportunities, to hire faculty, to improve our facilities. CUNY is lucky to be well funded, but the need exceeds what we have.

RS: What might students be surprised to learn about you?
KM: I started knitting 18 months ago, and I’ve learned to let go of being a perfectionist. I was making a baby blanket for a friend, and my friends had to remind me to keep going even after I made a mistake. I think that’s a metaphor for life. You make mistakes but you keep going.

RS: What are your favorite hobbies?
KM: I’m an eclectic reader. I also am very active. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon three times. I’m a biker, hiker, and I do yoga. I do a couple of yoga retreats a year.

RS: What would you tell alumni?
KM: We want you connected to John Jay. We want an active alumni association that can inspire our students. It’s not just about money—there are many contributions you can make just by your presence. I like to connect people, and having a huge John Jay network is an opportunity for students to see what their lives can be like as they graduate. With 60,000 alumni, that network is powerful.

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