“He came to Fordham in July 2020, and during his too-brief tenure brought tremendous intellectual acumen, energy, and gravitas to the role. He was an experienced and capable administrator and a highly regarded historian and public intellectual with a fierce commitment to social justice and the advancement of minority scholars,” Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, wrote in an email to the University community. “We have lost a great soul in Tyler.”
Stovall was a longtime leader in higher education on both the East and West coasts. He started his career as a high school history teacher at the Nichols School in Buffalo, New York, in 1978. He worked his way up in various roles—teaching assistant, instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, professor, and provost—at universities in Wisconsin, Ohio, and California. His most recent positions before Fordham include dean of the Humanities Division and a distinguished professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the dean of the Undergraduate Division of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Stovall was a respected historian who inspired scholars with his research and witty, accessible lectures. He was president of the American Historical Association, the oldest and largest society of historians and professors of history in the United States. He authored 10 books and numerous articles in the field of modern French history, and he was particularly interested in race and class, Blackness, postcolonial history, and transnational history. In his latest book, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton University Press, 2021), which was published just before the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, he reflected on how our ideas about freedom are shaped by our views of race. For Americans, freedom has always been nearly synonymous with whiteness, he said in a Fordham News interview about his book. In his final published piece—written for The Nation, the oldest weekly magazine in America that was founded by abolitionists in 1865—he wrote about the relationship between democracy and authoritarianism.
On his personal website, he wrote about the importance of history in shaping a better future.
“For me, history is the record not only of how things change, but how people make things change, how they act individually and collectively to create a better world,” he wrote.
In an announcement to the Fordham community, Provost Dennis Jacobs wrote about Stovall’s own place in history.
“Among the first African Americans in the U.S. to achieve prominence in European history, he has provided encouragement and mentorship for other minority scholars to follow in his stead,” Jacobs wrote when Stovall was appointed in 2020.
Stovall arrived at Fordham on July 1, 2020. As dean of GSAS, Stovall encouraged student-faculty collaboration and worked with alumni to strengthen career and mentorship networks. He enhanced existing programs, including GSAS Futures and Preparing Future Faculty, and developed new ones, including an alumni mentoring network, said Eva Badowska, Ph.D., dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and associate vice president for arts and sciences. In addition, he worked on strengthening the undergraduate and graduate 4+1 programs, in collaboration with the deans of Fordham College at Rose Hill and Fordham College at Lincoln Center.
When he first arrived at Fordham, he immediately focused on student needs, especially funding opportunities for students who were experiencing food insecurity and income scarcity during the pandemic, said Joanne Schwind, assistant dean of GSAS’s office of academic programs and support. Stovall also strived to make the University a more welcoming place, especially for students and alumni of color.
“I was literally hired the same week that George Floyd was murdered,” Stovall said in a 2020 online discussion with other deans about anti-racism efforts at Fordham. “For me, being an African American dean at Fordham has called up both opportunities and responsibilities. It has meant that I have to think about what other members of the African American community are experiencing and the ways in which my position can be an asset to that community and, through that community, an asset to Fordham as a whole.”
Seven months later at a follow-up forum, Stovall contributed to a conversation about changes in the curriculum, the recruitment of more faculty and students of color, and other efforts to address racism on campus. In addition, he helped to educate the Fordham community about the significance of Juneteenth in a short video and reflected on the value of diversity in a university community in another video last summer.
“People often talk about diversity as being important for marginalized communities … But I want to emphasize that certainly at Fordham University and I think in our society as a whole, diversity is something that benefits all of us. Being exposed to people from different backgrounds, being able to interact with people with different experiences is something that we all learn from and makes all of our lives better,” he said in the video.
Stovall worked closely with Rafael Zapata, Fordham’s chief diversity officer, on several anti-racism and diversity initiatives.
“We collaborated on co-hosting a University-wide Faculty of Color and Allies gathering last spring that had about 85 attendees and generated a great deal of excitement, with a planned follow up for late January 2022. We were also working on BIPOC administration and staff development within Arts and Sciences,” Zapata said.
“We were doing a lot, and I just remember him saying, ‘Whatever you need, count me in.'”
Zapata said he and Stovall become neighbors in Hamilton Heights and enjoyed numerous lunches and dinners together. “I even ran into him with his son, Justin, at a spot near City College I’d taken him to previously—the way you run into good people at your favorite spots.”
In one of Stovall’s last messages that was set to go out to the University community, he reflected on his time at Fordham.
“Having spent my first year at Fordham on a nearly deserted campus in 2020, it has been deeply gratifying to see life return to the classrooms, lawns, and buildings of Rose Hill and Lincoln Center. At the same time, however, this fall has made it abundantly clear that the coronavirus will not disappear so easily … In spite of these challenges, our GSAS students and alumni have continued to display the perseverance and innovation that so attracted me to Fordham,” Stovall wrote in an email to GSAS alumni this December. “We will always face challenges, but I am confident that the members of the GSAS community will play an important role in meeting and overcoming them, now and in the future.”
Stovall was born in Gallipolis, Ohio. His father, Tyler Edward Stovall, was a child psychologist; his mother, Barbara Fuller Stovall, was the director of the South Side Settlement House, a social and economic justice-focused community center. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard University and two separate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison—a master’s degree in European history and a Ph.D. in modern European/French history. In a well-detailed online biography, a former mentee chronicled the most telling details of Stovall’s life and said Stovall taught him that “history can and should be a political act, essential to our struggles to make the world a better place.”
His impact at Fordham is clear, said Schwind, although his time at the University was short.
“Tyler was a wonderful leader, boss, and dean who inspired his staff to pursue their goals with a focus on equity and inclusion, and a vision toward the future of GSAS and its students,” she said. “Even though his time with GSAS was brief, Tyler’s kindness and compassion toward his colleagues, staff, and students will have a long-lasting impact on us all.”
Stovall is survived by his wife, Denise Herd, their son, Justin, and a sister, Leslie Stovall. Information on services will be provided when available.