What it’s like to be a university’s first woman and first lay president — and then do it again

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When Tania Tetlow started in July at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York City, she became both its first woman president and its first president who is not a priest. 

But it wasn’t the first time Tetlow has been in that position. She was also the first woman and first lay president in her last job, as president of Loyola University New Orleans, a Jesuit institution with about 4,600 students.

Tetlow stabilized a tumultuous budget situation after she began at Loyola in 2018. Fordham, which has some 17,000 students, isn’t facing such financial difficulty, but Tetlow’s first months there have brought their own challenges. The university needs to reach a new contract with adjunct faculty, and the union representing them protested at her inauguration in October. Fordham also has a policy mandating COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, that’s sparked controversy.

Before becoming a president, Tetlow was a top administrator and law professor at Tulane University. She sat down to talk about recent events, her plans at Fordham, and what it’s like to lead a religious institution at the current moment.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

HIGHER ED DIVE: What are your priorities at Fordham?

A headshot image of Tania Tetlow.

Tania Tetlow

Permission granted by Fordham University


TANIA TETLOW: Long term, I want to aim us in the direction of having as much impact on the world as possible. Students right now crave that from us and deserve it, and I think they can smell the difference between the performative version of virtue-signaling versus meaningful purpose and making a difference in the world.

In the short term, it’s wrapping my arms around the budget, figuring out how to be strategic in how we spend money, how to move a big ship a little more quickly.

Fordham’s adjunct union protested at your inauguration. What was that experience like?

They were polite about it, handing out leaflets at a distance. I actually didn’t see it from the inauguration, so I worried about it more than it was actually an issue.

But it’s difficult, because what you want to do is have the kind of ability to communicate where you get to the right answer, where you’re not put in a position of having to reward behavior that you find problematic — and not being seen to respond to ultimatums. And so, it’s tricky to get the negotiations right, where you don’t end up coming to the agreement you would have come to anyway, but in a way that appears like you responded to enormous pressure.

What I’m trying to get across to people who don’t know me yet is the way to persuade me is with the quality of the argument, that they’re not going to make me afraid. What I respond to is the desire to get these decisions right and finding ways that Fordham can do a better job in a higher ed market for faculty that’s become pretty unfair in how it’s cleaved apart — and that we don’t have a choice but to operate in those markets.

It’s an uncertain time for college finances.

We all have the balance of how to respond to a moment of great inflationary pressure on our budgets, inflationary pressure on our people, who are feeling it keenly and would like us to make it up to them in wages — but then keeping costs down for our students.

Are you doing a listening tour in your first year?

There’s no choice about the listening tour, the taking in vast amounts of information, making people know that you want to hear them.

My current, immediate priority is to find ways, after years of reactive budget planning in response to COVID, to going back and introducing more strategy in the budget process. Because the budget is the most important expression of our values and our strategy.

You dealt with a difficult budget situation in your last presidency. Layoffs were happening at Loyola right as you started.

Yes, up until a week before.

What did you learn from that experience?

Some of this is looking backwards at Loyola, but it matters how quickly you pull yourself out of denial and how quickly you pull the institution out of denial.

The great advantage I had with Loyola was, they were thoroughly out of denial and they’d made a lot of the painful decisions about the cuts that had to happen, and they did it in a very careful way to avoid impacting students.

Retention went up, not down.

When there are those kinds of constraints, there is the ability to tackle waste in an absolute way. What is harder is at an institution where things are fine and there is enough, but there’s never quite enough if you don’t spend it strategically, persuade everyone of the need to be frugal without austerity.

Nothing we do isn’t important. But if you were starting from scratch every year, you probably wouldn’t build quite the budget that you have or the structure that you have.

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