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In a First, Fordham Will be Led by a Woman, Not a Catholic Priest

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Fordham University, one of the most prominent Jesuit universities in the United States, announced its new president on Thursday, unveiling a choice that breaks with tradition in two significant ways: For the first time in its nearly 200-year history, the school will be led by a lay woman instead of a Jesuit priest.

Tania Tetlow, a former law professor and the current president of Loyola University New Orleans, a Jesuit school in Louisiana, will be installed as the new president on July 1 when the Rev. Joseph M. McShane steps down after 19 years.

The decision makes Fordham the 21st Jesuit college or university to be led by a lay person and the sixth to be led by a woman. Ms. Tetlow, who has served as president of Loyola University since August 2018, was also the first woman and the first lay person to lead that institution.

In its announcement, Fordham went to great lengths to emphasize Ms. Tetlow’s personal connection with the Jesuit order.

Her uncle, the Rev. Joseph Tetlow, is a well-known Jesuit writer and former head of the Secretariat for Ignatian Spirituality in Rome and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, now part of Santa Clara University.

Her father spent 17 years as a Jesuit before he left the order to start a family, and her parents met as graduate students at Fordham. In a video message to the university community, Ms. Tetlow said, “Fordham is the reason that I exist” and described herself as the product of “a family full of Jesuits.”

“They taught me that faith and reason are intertwined,” she said. “They instilled in me an abiding curiosity to find God in all things. They sang me to sleep with a Gregorian chant and taught me the absolute joy of learning.”

There are 27 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. For generations, they have been led by members of the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuit order, which is well known for its work in education and intellectual pursuits.

But the move toward lay leadership has gained steam since 2001, when Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., became the first Jesuit college or university to name a president who was not a member of the order.

That trend reflects a grim reality facing the Catholic Church in the United States: There are not enough young men entering the priesthood to replace older priests who retire or die, leaving an ever smaller pool of clergy members who are qualified to run a large nonprofit entity like a modern university.

The number of Catholic priests in the United States has dropped precipitously in recent decades. In 1970, there were 59,192 priests in the country, but that number dropped to 35,513 in 2020, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University initiative that conducts social science research on matters related to the Catholic Church.

That decline has been even sharper among religious orders, a category that includes the Jesuits and groups like the Franciscans and Dominicans. In 1970, there were 21,920 priests in religious orders in the United States, but by 2020 that number had fallen to 10,308.

Father McShane addressed that decline when introducing Ms. Tetlow on Thursday.

“The demographic realities that are ours are harsh,” he said. “They demand we rise to the challenge and embrace a new way of doing things.”

When Father McShane entered the Jesuit order in 1967, there were 1,460 Jesuits in New York, he said, adding that today there are 2,086 Jesuits left nationwide, and the average age is over 70.

Only 34 men entered Jesuit training in the country last year, Father McShane said. And at Fordham, only 14 Jesuits still teach students, out of 747 full-time instructors, according to a university spokesman.

In remarks on Thursday, Ms. Tetlow said that maintaining a sense of Catholic identity was “a critical issue” for Fordham and other schools whose leadership passes to lay people.

“Me being the first lay president at Loyola, it was an opportunity to remind everyone that given the waning number of priests among us, we have to own the mission as lay people or else we will lose it,” she said. “It’s a very visceral reminder that we all have to understand who we are and speak in that language and teach that to our students.”

Last Fall, five Jesuit universities in the United States inaugurated new presidents. Only one, the Rev. Joseph G. Marina of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, is a Jesuit priest. Another is a woman: Colleen M. Hanycz of Xavier University in Cincinnati.

The trend has also begun to emerge at the country’s 87 Jesuit high schools. Last year, Regis High School in New York, one of the most prominent Catholic schools in the country, fired its Jesuit president, the Rev. Daniel Lahart, after an investigation found he had engaged in sexual misconduct with several adults, including school employees. He was replaced by Christian Talbot, a lay person.

Fordham’s current president, Father McShane, has led the school through a period of transition and growth, presiding over a financial boom that saw the quadrupling of the university endowment to more than $1 billion.

Its current enrollment includes 16,986 students, including 9,904 undergraduates, 43.5 percent of whom are Catholic, according to statistics published by the university.

The search for Father McShane’s replacement began in the fall, and more than 150 candidates were considered for the position, said Gina Vergel, a university spokeswoman.

Before Ms. Tetlow was named president of Loyola University in 2018, she had a long career at Tulane University.

She served as Tulane’s senior vice president and chief of staff from 2015 to 2018, and before that was the university’s associate provost for international affairs, a professor of law and the director of its domestic violence legal clinic.

From 2000 to 2005, she was a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

In a statement on Thursday, both Father McShane and the Rev. Joseph M. O’Keefe, the head of the Jesuit order’s operations on the East Coast, emphasized Ms. Tetlow’s Catholic bona fides and said that Fordham’s “Catholic identity” would not be diluted with a lay person at the helm.

“Her commitment to Jesuit pedagogy and to Fordham’s Jesuit, Catholic mission is both deep and well-informed,” Father McShane said. “I shall rest easy with her in the office I have occupied for almost two decades.”

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