HomeLearning CenterNot a Priest, Not a Man, but Ready to Run Fordham

Not a Priest, Not a Man, but Ready to Run Fordham

Originally published by David Waldstein for the New York Times

Tania Tetlow, the newish president of Fordham University, was in New Orleans, isolating with a case of Covid over winter break, when she learned that Claudine Gay had been forced to resign as Harvard’s president. She did not know all the facts of the case, but it was still a sobering moment.

Dr. Gay had been in her post for barely six months. Her ouster came only weeks after M. Elizabeth Magill, who had appeared at the same congressional hearing as Dr. Gay and faced similar condemnation for her testimony, stepped down as president of the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Magill had lasted just 18 months.

“Being a university president is a tough job on a good day,” Ms. Tetlow said recently. “I think we’re all feeling fragile right now. These are tough issues to navigate.”

The ability to navigate through turbulence is one of the many assets that brought Ms. Tetlow to Fordham. Added to her wide-ranging résumé — putting murderers and drug lords in jail as a federal prosecutor in New Orleans, challenging longstanding gender barriers while untangling the finances of a foundering institution, singing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium — Ms. Tetlow’s somewhat unusual profile seems uniquely suited to Fordham.

A midsize Jesuit university tucked into 85 pristine acres in the heart of the Bronx (with a second campus at Lincoln Center in Manhattan), Fordham may not draw the kind of scrutiny that Harvard and Penn do. Nor has its campus been roiled with protests over the war in Gaza on the scale seen at other colleges. But the challenges she faced when she took over in July 2022 were no less daunting.

She succeeded the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, an admired priest whose 19-year tenure had just come to an end. The board of trustees was looking for a leader who would remain true to the Jesuit mission while also introducing fresh energy and ideas. Ready for change, the board chose not only the first woman to lead Fordham in its 182-year history; Ms. Tetlow is also the first president who isn’t a priest.

Over the course of several months, Ms. Tetlow sat for wide-ranging discussions in her spacious office in the Bronx (and a more spartan one at Lincoln Center), while watching the Rams play football at Jack Coffey Field and before singing in Fordham’s annual Christmas concert.

Engaging and unmistakably sharp, Ms. Tetlow, 52, easily toggles from light cultural topics (dogs and ’90s bands) to more pressing issues, like climate change and the need for more government assistance to soften the financial strain of college. She regularly concludes statements with the clause “the research shows” — leaving little doubt of her grasp of it.

While smaller and perhaps less prestigious than Columbia and New York University, Fordham takes great pride in its underdog status. Relatively isolated in the Bronx, the university is known for providing high-level liberal arts degrees to first-generation college students and the families of immigrants.

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