New history describes founding, rise, and secularization of Fordham University

Monsignor Thomas Shelley’s Fordham: A History of the Jesuit University of New York: 1841-2003 describes a trajectory common to many Jesuit universities in the U.S.

Fordham University identifies itself as “the Jesuit University of New York”. However, some, including Jesuits, remain confused as to what that precisely means. Some cynics even suggest it does not necessarily imply a Catholic University. Help toward an answer can be found in the very well written and researched book, Fordham—A History of the Jesuit University of New York: 1841-2003 (Fordham University Press: New York, 2016), written by Monsignor Thomas Shelley, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and Emeritus Professor of Church History at Fordham. Its publication coincided with the 175th anniversary of the school’s founding. 

The early decades
The school, then called St. John’s College, was started at Rose Hill on Fordham Manor in the then rural Bronx in 1841 by the outspoken Irish-born John Hughes, Bishop (and later Archbishop) of New York, as a college and seminary for his diocese. But in 1846, Hughes, contending with Nativism, trying to establish parochial elementary schooling in New York, and short-handed in clerical personnel, turned over the school, (which had already received a charter from the State of New York) to a group of Jesuits in Kentucky. The twenty-nine who came to Fordham were primarily French exiles from the anti-clerical regime of King Louis Philippe.

Fourteen years later Hughes withdrew the diocesan seminary from being part of Fordham, relocating it elsewhere. However, the college (as well as a secondary school) continued, although the total student body rarely exceeded 300 in any year until the early Twentieth Century. A remarkable statistic was that on its fiftieth anniversary (1891) St. John’s could report that 130 or more than a quarter of its alumni had been ordained. 

The school’s relatively small size did not preclude the involvement of its leaders and the Jesuits in general in a controversy arising from the refusal of the Law School of Harvard to consider graduates of Boston College, Holy Cross, and St. John’s (Fordham) for acceptance as law students. In an article in the Atlantic Monthly of October 1899, the President of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, compared Jesuit education to that of the Moslems, claiming it made only “trifling concession to natural science”, and based its rules by “nothing but an unhesitating belief” in their divine wisdom. He insisted the immense expansion of human knowledge in the nineteenth century and the increasing sense “of the sanctity of the individual’s gifts and will power” as grounds to reject the  “one uniform course of study” characteristic of Jesuit schooling.

st. john's college, 1846 [wikipedia]

Father Timothy Brosnahan,S.J., who had been President of Boston College, wrote a reply, carried in a Jesuit weekly after the Atlantic Monthly refused to carry it,  correcting many factual errors in Eliot’s piece, especially about the availability of scientific education in Jesuit schools. He also emphasized “the need for a unified and balanced college education” and, in a criticism of the increasing vogue of elective courses, “the inability of inexperienced undergraduates to formulate such an educational program for themselves”. Two successive presidents from Fordham, Father Thomas Campbell, S.J., and George A. Petit, S.J., persisted in the defense of Jesuit education, celebrating particularly its emphasis on classical languages and fundamental studies, rather than the then increasingly fashionable “will-of-the wisp electivism”. Imagine what such men would say about the smorgasbord of electives being offered in contemporary, even “Jesuit”, universities!

Fordham in the early 20th century
In the first decade of the twentieth century, after the establishment of a short-lived medical school and a law school, Fordham was recognized as a university by the State of New York. In 1912 the School of Pharmacy was founded, and in 1916, the seventy-fifth anniversary, the Schools of Education, Social Service, and a Graduate School of Arts and Science, all of which enrolled women, were started. The student body grew to a thousand, with 200 in the College. By1941, the centennial of Fordham, the student body reached more than 8,000. 

However, as is always the case, rapid growth brought complications, such as the loss of accreditation in 1935 from the American Association of Universities. Fordham’s failure with accrediting bodies were partly a consequence of the mutual suspicion between external academics and some Jesuits comparable to the crossing of swords with Charles Eliot of Yale in the 1890’s. Father Ignatius W. Cox, S.J., a professor of ethics, said to the agency “we are developing a type and culture not inferior to yours, but to our minds infinitely superior”. 

The rectification of the accreditation problem was resolved following the arrival in 1936 of Father Robert I. Gannon, S.J., who began the pattern that has remained since—except for the 1960’s—of long-term presidencies, and under whom Fordham truly came of age. Especially dramatic in enhancing the school’s prestige was Gannon’s recruitment of such renowned scholars such as Ross J. S. Hoffman, the Burke scholar closely associated with Russell Kirk in the development of intellectual conservatism in America; Victor Hess, the Austrian-born physicist and Nobel laureate; the classicist Father Rudolph Arbesmann, O.S.A.; Dietrich von Hildebrand, the German philosopher; and Oscar Halecki, the Poliosh historian. The later four were refugees from Nazism.

In addition, in 1937, Gannon brought as a visiting professor the celebrated English Catholic man of letters and controversialist, Hilaire Belloc. Adding to the prestige of the institution, in the fall of 1936 Gannon arranged the awarding of an honorary doctorate from Fordham to the papal secretary of state, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII). During the 1940 presidential election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Rose Hill ostensibly to review the school’s ROTC. In 1946, the centenary of the Jesuit arrival, President Harry Truman visited and was given an honorary degree.

From thriving to tumultuous
Gannon’s thirteen years was followed in 1949 with the tenure of Father Laurence J. McGinley, S.J., who would serve until 1963. McGinley’s era coincided with what some see as the acceptance of Catholics (especially Irish-Americans) by American society. They had emerged into the middle class and beyond, gained significant political positions, and possibly exceeded American Protestants in the level of education they had attained. The culmination, of course was the election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960.

It was a period in which Fordham especially thrived. Many of its newer Jesuit faculty came with European or Ivy League degrees, increasing numbers of college graduates gained Woodrow Wilson Fellowships to prestigious graduate schools, and ground was broken in an ideal midtown Manhattan location, Lincoln Center, to where Fordham would relocate its various downtown schools, beginning with its Law School.

It was also an era when self-questioning was beginning among some American Catholics about possible flaws amidst the apparent success of Catholic higher education. Monsignor John Tracey Ellis, professor of Church History at Catholic University of America, questioned the qualitative as opposed to the numerical adequacy of American Catholic higher education. Fordham conducted a self-study from 1960 to 1963. The study acknowledged that Fordham had more than met the original purpose of Archbishop Hughes in having founded the school: to serve the needs of the local Catholic community. However, some of its recommendations seemed contrary to Hughes’ ideal. Fordham was criticized for being narrowly local, as most of its faculty had been born in the New York area and had been educated at Jesuit or other Catholic high schools and universities. Furthermore, there was too much academic inbreeding and the faculty scholarly publications were inadequate. 

McGinley was replaced the same year the report appeared by Father Vincent T. O’Keefe, S.J., whose tenure lasted just two years, as in 1965 he became the assistant in Rome to the new Jesuit superior general, Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Two innovations that O’Keefe brought to Fordham were the establishment of a faculty senate and the formation of a women’s college, Thomas More College, that in a few years would merge with the hitherto exclusively male Fordham College.the peter, fisher of men statue at the lincoln center campus [wikipedia]
O’Keefe was succeeded by Father Leo McLoughlin, S.J., who had a doctorate from the Sorbonne. A member of the Communications Arts Department, he became Dean of Fordham College in the 1950’s, and afterwards a Dean at St. Peter’s College. His three-year tenure as President was probably the most traumatic in the school’s history. Besides a great amount of student unrest, a nation-wide pattern emanating from, among other things, opposition to the war in Vietnam, there were substantial changes in the character of the school. Major administrative changes included greater departmental autonomy from deans, increased faculty salaries, a largely university funded medical program, inclusion of Fordham in the TIAA-CREF retirement program, and a modernized and liberalized tenure process. Many of these were appropriate, but also contributed to the financial chaos that resulted in McLoughlin’s demise as President.

The Catholic character of Fordham and so many other institutions was greatly affected by the recently concluded Second Vatican Council, or at least by what some interpreted as its mandate. One of those was the drastic decline in religious vocations as well as the leaving of the priestly and religious life by so many. Another was the appearance of a document, the Land O’Lakes statement, signed by McLoughlin and other Catholic university presidents, including the president of Notre Dame, which asserted greater autonomy of their schools from hierarchical influence. McLoughlin had indicated an aim to “pay any price, break any mold, in order to achieve [Fordham’s] true function as a university,” and for Fordham to be Catholic with both a large “C” and a small “c”.

The path to secularization
Perhaps more significant was Fordham’s effort to overcome New York State constitutional restrictions on the availability of public funds being granted to “sectarian institutions”. The school was advised by two Columbia University Law School professors (the Gellhorn Report) to end the exclusive Jesuit membership of its board of trustee, as a new board was created with a majority being lay persons. That step enabled the state authorities to reverse their original refusal of money as they concluded that Fordham, regardless of its origins, was not “under the control or direction of a religious denomination or taught denominational tenets or doctrines”. 

Ultimately, but not immediately, other things at Fordham were dropped in accord with the Gellhorn recommendations, such as the presence of crucifixes in classrooms, the recitation of prayers at the beginning of classes, and the wearing of religious grab by professors. Even relatively “liberal” philosopher, Father J. Quentin Lauer, S.J., had apprehensions and warned that a secular Fordham “would be a denial of all Fordham has been for 128 years”. Admittedly, in the years immediately following it was hard at first to sense that Fordham was on the path to secularization. Although reduced, a significant number of Jesuits remained on the faculty. Many of the senior administrators and deans were either Jesuits or lay Catholics, and the overwhelming majority of students were Catholics and a great number were graduates of parochial secondary schools .On the other hand there was an increased recruitment to the faculty of non-Catholics, not that there had not been some in the past.

The university’s serious financial difficulties prompted McLoughlin’s replacement in 1969 by Father Michael P. Walsh, S.J., a former president of Boston College and chairman of Fordham’s Board of Trustees. With the assistance of some generous benefactors and an effective and less experimental administration, Walsh turned the financial situation around.

After three years, with the mission of restoring fiscal stability accomplished, he retired and was replaced by Father James J. Finlay, S.J., Irish-born, but Bronx raised, who was educated at Regis High School and Fordham College, had a Ph.D. in political science from Duke, chaired that department at Fordham, and was subsequently Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science.

During his twelve-year tenure, enrollment expanded and improved qualitatively, various graduate and professional programs (most now located, along with a liberal arts college, at the Lincoln Center campus), especially the School of Education and the Law School, thrived. By the early 1980’s Fordham had more than 14,000 students, although the presence of Jesuits on the faculty had shrunk in a decade from twenty to ten per cent of the faculty, that is to fifty, in addition to twenty-one being administrators.

The Blue Chapel, Rose Hill [Wikipedia]

Growth—and loss of identity
Finlay was succeeded in 1984 by the Bronx-born Father Joseph A, O’Hare, S.J, like Finlay an alumnus of Regis, the Jesuit scholarship high school in New York. His Ph.D. in philosophy was from Fordham and he had spent 11 years in the Philippines. He had been the editor of the Jesuit weekly, America, for the previous nine years. He was a tall man who had a presence characteristic of a public figure like a governor or corporate CEO. While he was president Fordham developed considerably. In his first fifteen years, the faculty grew from 607 to 902. There was a considerable amount of new buildings, especially dormitories, but also a new library the cost 54 million dollars. The new dorms allowed a changing in the character of the undergraduate student body especially. In 1972 seventy percent were commuters, while in 1992 the same proportion were boarders.

In 2003, when O’Hare resigned from the longest tenure of any Fordham president, the student body had expanded to nearly sixteen thousand with a good number from the American west coast. There was a great number of named chairs on the faculty, as well external recognition of its members by academic societies and public authorities. One of the most prestigious recruitments was O’Hare’s successful wooing to Fordham in 1988 from Catholic University of Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J., who occupied the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in the Theology Department. In 2001 Dulles was named a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

O’Hare was committed to Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic character, but wished to avoid religious indoctrination, rather promoting “the discovery and sharing of truth”. Some, however, are skeptical of the readiness of many on the non-religious side, including some of the non- and/or ex-Catholics on the Fordham faculty, to allow an audience for believers.

O’Hare’s measured attitude governed his response to the efforts of Fordham Lesbians and Gays and Fordham Students for Choice to gain school recognition and financial support. He acknowledged his own orthodox moral position on homosexuality and abortion, but, in allowing the groups to seek recognition from the student government, he assumed they were not so much championing homosexuality or abortion, as wishing discussion on public policy on abortion and the “promotion of a more enlightened understanding of homosexuality”. Very probably O’Hare’s quite Jesuitical response was governed by legal inhibitions that an outright condemnation would jeopardize the earlier state conclusion that Fordham was not “under the control or direction of a religious denomination or religious tenets”.

Monsignor Shelley’s history of Fordham ends in 2003 with O’Hare being succeeded as president by Father Joseph M. McShane, S.J. Since McShane had commissioned the work, and is his own cousin, Shelley appropriately does not include his era in the book. However, one wonders whether Fordham, at the time of its bi-centennial in 2041, will still be able with any legitimacy to call itself a Jesuit—never mind Catholic—university. Presently less than fifty percent of its thousands of students are Catholic, an even smaller portion of the faculty are such, and there are fewer than thirty Jesuits (about as many as when the Society first came to Fordham in 1846) among a faculty and administration numbering in the hundreds.

A future Fordham might be Jesuit and Catholic only in the same sense that Harvard and Yale are Calvinist. We cannot of course know the future. But we can pray that whatever form the school takes it will still be ad majorem Dei gloriam. 

Fordham—A History of the Jesuit University of New York: 1841-2003
by Monsignor Thomas Shelley
Fordham University Press: New York, 2016
Hardcover, 536 pages

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About John P. McCarthy 5 Articles
John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical, Kevin O'Higgins: Builder of the Irish State, among other books, as well as articles and reviews in Crisis, Modern Age, Intercollegiate Review, and other publications.