What an overwhelming moment.
I am honored beyond measure to be entrusted by the Board of Trustees, and all of you, to be here today—the chance to build on the extraordinary work of my 32 predecessors, especially Fr. Joe McShane.
Believe it or not, Fordham has only held two other inauguration ceremonies in almost 200 years. In 1971, for example, Fr. Walsh met Fr. Finlay in the JFK airport parking lot to hand over the keys to the University.
But we gather here today—in such splendor—not for Fr. McShane and me but to properly celebrate Fordham in all of its glory. To tell the story of our history and traditions. To revel in our achievements. And most of all, to dream about the future.
At a moment of darkening clouds in the world, we gather on this bright, shining day to remember that Fordham has such power to make the world a better place.
To create opportunity and transform lives.
To bring together the best and brightest from every corner of the world, and to make them believe—at their core—that they belong here. To spin their dreams and talents into reality.
To teach them, at a time of growing division and distrust, Jesuit discernment—how to listen with open minds and hearts, how to embrace being challenged.
To form them into global citizens, with a deep understanding of the fundamentals of democracy. To send them out with the courage to make the hard moral choices necessary to protect democracy.
And to persuade a cynical world that while we search for truth with humility, truth does, in fact, exist.
If we work ever harder, ever smarter, Fordham will continue to rise to new heights. We will achieve (as we say here) magis. It’s a Latin word that simply means “more,” but to us it means the constant striving to do better—to have raging ambition, not for ourselves but for the mission of God.
In 1841, Archbishop John Hughes struggled to serve the hundreds of thousands of immigrants streaming into New York, so desperate and so determined. He organized food and shelter for them, but he also recognized their deeper hunger—for education and opportunity.
Hughes founded a college on this spot and called it St. John’s.
He did so as an act of hope—because he could see the talent and potential in those desperate people coming off the ships.
And he did so as an act of defiance, against all of those elite American universities turning away our ancestors—those schools so willing to squander the talent of Catholic (and Jewish) immigrants well into the 20th century.
In its first year, St. John’s hired six faculty and recruited three students. Not a very promising start. But Hughes had high ambitions. He asked the religious order most famous for academic excellence—the Jesuits—to take over the University.
It makes me personally very happy that it was the French Jesuits who said yes, many of whom came through New Orleans.
They built this beautiful campus, stone by stone. Students flocked here from New York, and also from the South, Puerto Rico, and Mexico—a vibrant community bonding over the brilliant teaching and terrible food.
And here’s where Fordham’s story begins to intertwine with my own, in ways I just discovered.
Fordham’s president during World War I, Fr. Joseph Mulry, created a graduate school of social services to serve the people of New York, especially the poor.
President Mulry had a nephew determined to become a Jesuit, but who didn’t qualify to join the New York province because he didn’t speak ancient Greek (New York has its standards!). So Louis entered the Southern Province.
Eventually Fr. Louis Mulry became pastor of a Jesuit parish in New Orleans, where in the 1930s, an adoring parishioner asked him if she could name her third child after him. (He must have been pretty flattered.) As he christened the child Louis Mulry Tetlow, I’m sure no one at the baptism imagined this baby boy would someday raise a daughter to become president of Fordham.
I didn’t put the pieces of that puzzle together until the Mulry family emailed me recently, asking me about my father’s name. But it doesn’t surprise me. Like so many of you, my family’s story has intertwined with Jesuit education for generations.
My grandfather became the first Tetlow to escape a life of coal mining and go to college, on a football scholarship from Loyola New Orleans. There he met my grandmother, and they had five children, two of whom became Jesuit priests.
Their oldest, Joseph Tetlow Jr., just celebrated 75 years as a Jesuit. A renowned expert on Ignatian spirituality, Uncle Joe has served in every post you can imagine, including leading the Curia on Spirituality in Rome. He’s still writing remarkable books, and next week he turns 92. He is, quite simply, the wisest and kindest man on the planet, and he’s watching this online if you could all take a moment and cheer for him.
My father, always known by the unusual name of Mulry, served as a Jesuit for 17 years. Never as book-smart as his big brother, never as sure of himself, joining the order was a leap of faith in more ways than one.
But the Jesuits could see his talents. They instilled in him military discipline and hard work. They inspired in him a love of learning which would never waver, a joyful curiosity that would last his whole life.
Jesuit training is no small feat—years of theology and philosophy, back then with oral exams in Latin, and then the most humbling test of all: teaching teenagers in the Jesuit high schools. It was all meant to culminate in a Ph.D. and joining the faculty of a Jesuit university.
In the late 1960s, my father came to Fordham to study psychology. Here he met my mom, a fellow graduate student, who had just finished her master’s in philosophy and was starting a degree in theology. They became friends at daily Mass, celebrated in the chapel of Murray-Weigel Hall, with a vibrant community of students and young faculty.
As they became closer, my father realized he had an agonizing decision to make. He loved being a priest more than I can describe, but he also felt called by God to have a family. To be a good husband and a father who raised his children in devout faith and purpose.
I like to think he made the right choice. But regardless, I hope I’ve made it up to the Jesuits.
My sisters and I received a Jesuit education from birth. Our father sang us to sleep with Gregorian chant. He tried to make us delight in calculus—and failed.
He rejoiced in the beauty of God’s creation. On every walk together he would point to the magnificence of the smallest creatures and quote his favorite Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Glory be to God for dappled things.”
For the rest of his life, which ended five years ago, he would call to let us know when the moon was particularly beautiful so we wouldn’t miss it.
My sisters and I grew up without much material privilege but awash in education. Our mother, who is here today, did not believe in relying on translations of the Bible—so full of filters and assumptions—and so she learned Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek to read the original.
(And by the way, as a kid, my household theological training did not always endear me to the nuns teaching me religion. Sorry, Sr. Bertille.)
For my sisters and me, Jesuit education meant knowing that the talent God gave us didn’t make us better than anyone else, but it came with great responsibility. We had to work hard, gobble up knowledge, and hone our skills to make the world a better place. And so we have tried to do.
I grew up determined to find a way to matter, as a prosecutor fighting for the victims of crime, particularly those with the least power—and as a law professor at Tulane trying to find the answers to domestic violence, and racism in the criminal justice system.
And yet, something was missing. Next door to Tulane stands Loyola New Orleans, a campus I grew up around as a child and where I went to Mass my whole life, listening to thousands of Jesuit homilies. From Tulane, I used to point across the fence and say, “Actually, those are my people.”
I learned so much about the strategy of higher education as chief of staff to the brilliant president of Tulane. But in many ways, I learned lessons even more valuable from the extraordinary Loyola community—about ingenuity and determination, about passion and utter devotion to students.
For almost 500 years, passion and ingenuity have been essential traits of Jesuit universities.
Education was never supposed to be the point when Ignatius founded the Jesuit order with a few of his friends from the University of Paris. They wanted to become missionaries spreading the Gospel around the world, not tied down to the administration of schools.
But Ignatius had an unusual idea—to create schools so excellent that they would attract the children of the elite but also be affordable to all. In the beginning, he banned the charging of any tuition at all. (You may have just noticed a groan from all of the other presidents here.)
That honorable struggle—how to make academic excellence truly affordable to every talented student, regardless of wealth—is one the Jesuits have grappled with for centuries. When some of the kings of Europe later suppressed the Jesuit order and plundered their great universities, they expected to find piles of gold. Instead, they found piles of debt.
Our work is not easy. But that’s because it matters so much.
The Jesuits continued to build schools at a remarkable pace, because of that passion and ingenuity. By the 1700s, they ran 700 institutions on five continents, helping to create higher education as we know it.
The Jesuits taught students the principles of discernment—how to seek answers to complicated problems with openness and humility. Long before modern psychology, they taught self-awareness, the willingness to be challenged and proved wrong. To learn, and live, in the spirit.
And in an era when the relationship between faith and reason was fraught, the Jesuits took a stand for both. They proclaimed the gospel of finding God in all things, especially in human reason. They believed that education doesn’t dilute our faith, it fuels it. That God intends for us to understand creation through science and math and art.
The Jesuits did the proud work of the faculty today, fearlessly pushing on the boundaries of human knowledge and grappling with the deepest meanings of human expression. There are 35 craters on the moon named after Jesuit astronomers. A Jesuit created a written alphabet for the Vietnamese language.
They were explorers and cartographers, they learned languages and—more importantly—culture wherever they went. They spread ideas to and from every region of the world.
Ignatius believed that education fuels faith, but more importantly, that education fuels action rooted in faith—because the point of God’s gift of free will is that all of us must fight for justice, serve the poor, and welcome the stranger. As Ignatius insisted, “In God’s eyes, our words have only the value of our actions.”
Within Catholic tradition, there are many models of service, including goodness rooted in purity, in monastic seclusion from the wicked world. The Jesuits chose the riskier path—to engage, to push to make the world better.
It often got them in a great deal of trouble, sometimes because of missteps, more often because the world preferred not to be reminded of the clear lessons of the Gospels. As my father used to say, “They’d rather think Jesus was just kidding.”
The Jesuits questioned assumptions. They challenged authority. And they took the great risk of teaching that audacity, knowing that upstart students like Galileo and Voltaire would turn it all back on them.
Jesuit education has never been satisfied with teaching doctrine. We are not agnostic about the ways our students use the powerful tools we give them. We educate the whole person, cura personalis, because the point of education is to transform the world. We do not just teach, we do not even create opportunity—we forge character, we change lives.
And so we have done here at Fordham for 181 years.
Fordham inspired the kind of courage in our students that resulted in six Congressional Medals of Honor and seven Presidential Medals of Freedom, a record probably unmatched outside of the military academies.
Fordham fostered the blazing talent of a Vince Lombardi playing in his leather helmet and that of the prolific writer Mary Higgins Clark.
Fordham taught Robert Gould Shaw, who died a hero leading a division of Black soldiers finally allowed to fight in the Civil War. And Fordham taught Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar making those troops famous in the movie Glory.
So many of you sitting here today have told me the stories of how Fordham made all the difference in the trajectory of your family, as it has in mine. So many of you—now scientists and artists and captains of industry—were the first in your family to go to college.
Just imagine how much more the students sitting here with us today can achieve.
I want to stop and say something particular to all of us who are the children of Dublin and Donegal, of Messina and Milano. We have climbed so far, but there is a dangerous temptation dangled in front of us—that we can gain acceptance in this country as long as we turn our backs on those still waiting for their chance. A Faustian bargain to pull up the ladder behind us.
But we can never turn our back—not on those still climbing over the brutally unfair obstacles of exclusion and racism thrown in their way. Not on the new waves of immigrants.
We must never forget what it is to be hungry for opportunity and determined beyond measure. We must forever fight the ways the game continues to be rigged.
Because we know what happens when you throw your doors open ever wider—when you take the lessons of the Gospels literally. Then and only then can you bring together the most talented, because they come in every creed and color, every race and religion.
And we work ever harder to make our students know that they belong here. To lighten the burdens the world has put on so many of their backs. To succeed at making them feel the overwhelming love and acceptance of God.
New York, this amazing city, proves the strength that comes from diversity. It brings together millions of people from every nation. And what should be utter chaos—desperate people fleeing poverty and oppression, living in ridiculously close proximity, speaking a Babel of languages—instead has forged the economic and cultural capital of the world. New York proves every day what chutzpah and gumption and resilience can achieve.
And Fordham has been a fundamental part of New York’s success. For almost two centuries, it has invested in talent that might have been wasted. Turned determination into achievement.
(Now, as the ultimate global city, New York brings the world to Fordham, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to send our students out, as Ignatius did, to learn from the world, at our London campus and far beyond. We have the enormous advantage of being part of a global church; we have educated the leadership of Catholic institutions around the world. We have so many possibilities to partner with them.)
Some of you sitting here with very practical minds may be wondering how we will do all of this. How will we bridge the gap between the excellence our students deserve at a cost they can afford? How will we continue to grow and succeed in a very crowded market? These aren’t small questions during a challenging time for higher education.
That leads me to the point I most want to make.
We will succeed because of our mission, not in spite of it.
As we recruit the best and brightest of this generation, we need to remember what they have been through. Born just before the Great Recession, they missed years of their adolescence for a global pandemic. They watch a warming planet worried that we have traded away their futures.
They have a right to be cynical, but they do not despair. They face their futures with urgent determination. When they choose a college, they can smell the difference between virtue signaling and real impact, real courage.
This generation wants to fix broken systems and repair the world. They want to question assumptions. They want to push on authority. Sound familiar?
If we remain true to ourselves, if we avoid chasing status for its own sake, if we double down on Jesuit mission, students will choose us because of who we are.
Let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. When students make their choice, they look to see whether a university cares about the future of the planet. They will notice that Fordham has reduced its carbon footprint by a third and built the largest solar field in New York City.
But there are so many other ways we can—and do—have impact on the world around us.
We sit at the epicenter of the global economy. We can help harness the power of capitalism to find the answers, with the speed and innovation required. As the Gabelli faculty have already begun to do, we can convene the most powerful and inspire real action on climate change.
We can use our strength in the humanities to find the best ways to persuade the world to come together, to listen to the logic of science, to notice the urgent signs of the times, and to hear the cry of the poor. To achieve that, we need the insights of psychology, the lessons of history, and the empathy created by literature and art.
And we have special credibility as a Jesuit, Catholic institution. Because (as the Civil Rights Movement showed us) sometimes it takes the call of faith to cut through political rationalizations and the fog of denial. So we lean into the teachings of Pope Francis and his predecessors. We magnify the clarion call of Laudato Si.
My dream for Fordham is that we use our resources—especially the brilliance and creativity of our people—to make even more of an impact, starting always in our own community here in the Bronx and expanding outward.
To invest ever more in our faculty as they solve complicated problems and grapple with the deepest meaning of human culture. To know that the work we do matters.
To imbue in our students a lifelong curiosity, because this is just the beginning of their education.
To teach our students to challenge injustice and to be proud of them when they start by challenging us.
To model our values to the students in the ways we run this institution.
To succeed because we listen to the ideas of our own people and unlock their very Jesuit creativity and innovation.
And when we succeed, in the classroom, the research lab, and every corner of the University, it will be because of you—your ideas, your wisdom, and your determination.
(Now let me admit something to the people who work at Fordham. In writing this speech, I realized I overused the word “determination.” Six times already and I’m not even quite done. I imagine that in the exhaustion of the pandemic, some of you may be listening to my aspirations and feeling, well, tired.)
We face a serious temptation right now, the temptation of unrelenting cynicism, the kind that always proves itself right. The certainty that things will turn out badly and so we shouldn’t bother to try.
Today I am asking you to hope. To have the courage to hope. Not because these are hopeful times; they are not. But because these are urgent times.
Because our students, whose futures are very much at stake, are watching us. They are deciding whether to risk hoping and believing that they might make a difference.
Let’s teach them how it’s done. Better yet, let’s show them how it’s done. Let’s prove to them that we care about their future.
We do not do this work because it is easy but because it is important. This University has endured and adapted through overwhelming challenges. Fires and floods and world wars. Not just this global pandemic but also the one in 1918. We honor the courage of those who came before us and we work tirelessly for the students standing in front of us.
I come to you as a daughter of New Orleans—steeped in resilience and creativity. I was raised in a deeply Catholic and African American city, capable of weaving mourning into joy. If you want to better understand what that means, stay for the concert tonight.
But I am also a daughter of New York, where I spent my first formative years learning how to walk and to talk. That might explain a lifelong impatience and frustration with the usual pace of reform. It might also explain a certain bluntness underneath my southern charm. (Just to translate for you in advance, if I tell you “bless your heart,” it’s not actually a compliment.)
I will try every day to find the wisdom, courage, and joy to do this job well. To be worthy of the University that is the reason my parents met and thus the reason I exist.
I am so grateful, for the achievements of the students who flock here and the remarkable alumni they become.
To the Board of Trustees, past and present, who devote so much of their time and treasure to the University they love. The donors, big and small, who pay forward the opportunity they received and invest in a university they love.
For all of those who have dedicated their careers to Fordham—teaching, mentoring, serving, and supporting our students and this institution. You are the heart and soul of this University.
All of the Jesuits, who pray for me every day. I’ve grown up thinking of all of you as uncles, who had a perfect right to correct me, long before I took this job. I’m still counting on that.
What gives me strength is the training I’ve gotten from my beloved Uncle Joe, from my irrepressible father and brilliant mother.
My mentors through all of my winding careers, including Marc Morial and Fr. Curran, Lindy Boggs, the Landrieus, and so many others. And the teachers, like David Wilkins, who changed my life.
My big extended family, and the friends who have acted like family.
My sisters, Sonia and Sarah—we’ve been in this together our whole lives, and I would not be the same person without your love and support, and now that of my sister-in-law, Connie.
My husband, Gordon Stewart, my biggest supporter, who always finds a way to make me laugh even on the hardest days.
My stepson, Noah, who came into my life as a toddler and taught me how to love with my whole heart.
And the smallest person here, with the biggest heart, is my daughter, Lucy. She already has many good ideas for campus life, including buying a ram costume for our golden retriever. She does a wonderful job of keeping me humble. Lucy, you are my light and my hope.
Fordham, the world has never needed us more.
If we are ambitious for the cause, if we are humble and creative, if we stay true to our mission, there is nothing we can’t do.
This is our moment. Thank you.