Now more than ever, women are taking the helm at Jesuit institutions
By Mike Gabriele
Since 1846, when the Jesuits took over the newly founded St. John’s College (now Fordham University), a Jesuit priest has served as president —176 years. Most recently, Fr. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, led the institution for nearly two decades. Now, the torch has been passed to Fordham’s new president, who achieves two milestone firsts for the university: its first lay president and first woman president.
It was announced in February of this year that Tania Tetlow, who was serving at Loyola University New Orleans as its first woman president, would become the first woman president at Fordham University, effective July 1, 2022. And while Tetlow certainly has many ties to New Orleans from her youth, Fordham University is in her DNA, so to speak. While many can claim the heritage of having parents who met at Fordham, only Tetlow can profess to also having a father who was a Jesuit priest himself, and she still has an uncle who is a Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Tetlow, SJ. The Jesuit charism was indeed instilled in Tania at a young age. She recalls being sung to sleep by Gregorian chants, and since her mother was also a theologian, dinner conversations often revolved around politics of the ancient world. “If my parents didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, they would simply speak to each other in ancient Greek,” Tetlow recalls with a laugh.
Equipped with a “Jesuit formation” from birth, a law degree from Harvard University, experience as a former Assistant United States Attorney, and a tenure as vice president at Tulane University, it’s no wonder Tetlow’s path ultimately led her to leadership at a Jesuit institution. With the number of Jesuits decreasing, the need for lay leadership has grown, and the Society of Jesus is tapping the talents of both men and women to lead their colleges and universities. “Half the world’s talents are women,” says Tetlow. “And with the majority of our student bodies often being female as well, it matters to students to see women in roles of responsibility that broaden their perspective of what a university president looks like.”
Change can be challenging, and switching from a 176-year tradition of Jesuit leadership to having a lay woman at the helm may seem like a sharp turn for an institution steeped in the Ignatian way of proceeding. And Tetlow understands the importance of a Jesuit university remaining uniquely Jesuit. “Being Jesuit is the whole reason we exist as a university,” she explains. “It is crucial that lay leaders maintain this identity and keep it at the core of our mission.”
While president at Loyola New Orleans, Tetlow got to know and respect the Jesuit she now succeeds at Fordham, Fr. Joseph M. McShane. “As a colleague, Fr. McShane has been a great source of support and guidance for me,” she says. “He left very big shoes to fill, not just for bringing Fordham forward in so many ways, but also because he was so beloved on this campus. He was always so present at Fordham, and it’s now my job to live up to that example.”
Fr. McShane is quick to tout the accolades of his successor. “Tania took over Loyola New Orleans at a time when it was struggling, and she really helped turn the institution around in a dramatic fashion. She has the leadership skills Fordham needs, and she possesses a real familiarity with Jesuit higher education and Ignatian spirituality. And did she mention her father was a Jesuit for seventeen years? In fact, some of Tania’s most cherished pictures from childhood are of her and her parents in front of buildings here at Fordham. I know that she brings an emotional commitment to this university.”
Indeed, Tetlow has said on many occasions, “If it wasn’t for Fordham, I wouldn’t be here.” As Louis and Elisabeth Tetlow tied the knot at Fordham in 1970, little could they have imagined that one day their daughter would become president of the Jesuit university where they went to school, met, and got married.
This shift toward seeing more women appointed presidents at Jesuit institutions is a fairly recent one. It was just eight years ago that a Jesuit college appointed the first lay woman president in the history of all Jesuit colleges and universities—right up the street from Fordham at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. In 2014, Linda LeMura became Le Moyne’s president. Or, as LeMura describes it, “I became the first president of a Jesuit college who is also a mom.”
LeMura explains how Le Moyne has always been a pioneering Jesuit institution. “This was the first Jesuit college that the Society of Jesus opened as a co-ed institution. That was a huge risk at the time, but a pioneering one. And I think it was as a function of that decision that I became the first ‘non-vowed,’ woman president.”
She also admits to having been a little nervous about accepting the position. “I knew that people were going to be watching, and I didn’t want to let women down, particularly female students,” she recalls. “I wanted to be a role model and normalize this notion of a woman leading a Jesuit institution. And I think that’s where we are now, and Tania’s appointment at Fordham is certainly a manifestation of that. Women can do amazing things and have a love of the Jesuit charism that is unique and wonderful.”
Sometimes women can be the toughest onlookers. “At my home parish, when they announced my new appointment at Le Moyne,” says LeMura with a telling grin, “a little old lady came up to me afterward and said, ‘We’re so very proud of you… now don’t screw it up; we’ve waited 500 years for this.’”