Shifting demographics. Capricious ratings. Skepticism of the liberal arts. Fickle attitudes toward funding higher education.
The challenges facing Fordham are numerous, said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the University, on Sept. 20 at the Lincoln Center campus. But the University has the ability to not only withstand the stiff winds buffeting it, but to be a beacon for others, he said.
In an uncertain age, he said, Fordham’s Jesuit heritage and New York City DNA make it “the necessary American university for the 21st Century.”
In a 75-minute State of the University address at the Law School, Father McShane delved into everything from progress on student retention and diversity to admissions and enrollment figures, fundraising, rankings, facilities, and strategic planning.
On the undergraduate level, Father McShane noted that this year, Fordham had its 25th year of application growth, with 46,167 applications submitted. The average SAT score of the 2,265 entering students rose 11 points over last year’s average, to 1,355. California this year overtook Connecticut to contribute the third-most students in the nation—160—after New York and New Jersey.
In the class of 2022, 37 percent of students are from traditionally underrepresented groups in American society, a new high, he said.
“We have nearly 100 African Americans in the freshman class, an increase of 46 percent over what we had last year. We should see this as the ground floor, and we go up from here,” he said.
On the graduate level, the Law School, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Graduate School of Social Service are experiencing gains or are in a steady state. The Graduate School of Education, the graduate division of the Gabelli School of Business, and the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education continue to deal with challenging national and regional trends.
Father McShane said that when he first joined Fordham in 1992 as dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, the University had 3,200 undergraduate students and approximately 12,500 graduate students. Last year, the total number of undergraduate students hit 9,600, while the number of graduate students shrunk to 6,500, mirroring nationwide declines for graduate-level education.
Recruiting from areas such as California will be key, he said, because the population of college-age students in states such as New York and Massachusetts will “bottom out” in 2024, he said. Endeavors such as the University’s new campus in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of London will also strengthen Fordham’s international profile. He also said additional forays into online learning, such as those that were unveiled last year, will be explored.
Although Fordham fell nine places to number 70 in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent ranking, Father McShane noted that the change was partially due to the fact that the magazine changed its methodology this year. He pointed out that College Consensus, which presents a composite of rankings by several agencies and magazines, ranked Fordham the 58th best national research university. And he noted that The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked Fordham 10th among private colleges and universities for improving the upward social mobility of students who come from families of modest means.
“Because of our emphasis on and our devotion to social justice, this makes me really proud, and it’s something I think all of the members of the university family should be immensely proud of,” he said.
Father McShane noted that higher education provides a rare point on which Democrats and Republicans agree: It is too expensive, too skewed, and out of step with what the nation needs, which is workforce development, they say. This is woefully narrow-sighted, he said.
“They bypass the great history of the western world that saw higher education as a luminously good thing, because it trained the mind, and it produced educational, involved, and informed citizens,” he said.
That has been largely pushed aside, he said, and there’s a corresponding pullback of funding for higher education by the state and the federal government.
“It annoys me to the teeth that the government pulled out of the sacred covenant that was established immediately after World War II that there would be three partners paying for higher education: the family, the school, and the government,” he said.
On a related note, he said that the Excelsior Program unveiled last year by the State of New York has not adversely affected Fordham, but has caused declines in enrollment at private schools upstate. It’s an example of trend that he finds contradictory and troubling.
“In spite of the fact that the government has decided it’s going to downplay its funding for higher education, it’s now talking about free tuition. There’s a schizophrenia here, which is very interesting.”
Facilities and Fundraising
Despite the financial climate, Fordham has continued to invest in its students and facilities. The University has put $400 million into the Lincoln Center campus over the last 15 years, Father McShane said, resulting in 570,000 square feet of new space and 181,000 square feet of renovated space, including gut renovations of the sixth and eighth floors of the Lowenstein Center.
The Rose Hill campus has likewise seen improvements, such as upgraded computer science spaces in John Mulcahy Hall and the installation of solar panels on the roof of the garage—both of which were completed over the summer.
There is good news on the development front as well. Father McShane noted that in the course of the past year, the University has raised $49.5 million as part of Faith & Hope | The Campaign for Financial Aid. This brings the total raised to $140 million of the $175 million campaign goal.
Crisis in the Church
Father McShane also addressed the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, following the University’s official statement last month.
“As a priest, I am ashamed, embarrassed and furious about what some of my brother priests have done. These men are criminals,” he said, adding that he hopes Pope Francis prioritizes the needs of the victims first and foremost.
“It may in point of fact end up that the church is a poor church,” he said, referring to the impact of settlements paid to victims. “So be it. Virtue is the wealth of church. Goodness is the wealth of the church.”
Faith, he noted, is an essential element of Fordham’s identity, along with an embrace of immigrants, creativity, civic responsibility, and the art of the question.
“In an uncertain age, we are serious about, and remain committed to, the proposition that education is about character development, and that the world needs men and women of character, wisdom, integrity, and strength,” he said.
“This is our work, and the mission of the University.”