Meet the witty, warm, and fiercely intelligent Father Joseph McShane, current President of The Jesuit College of NYC, Fordham University. My colleague and Fordham alumnus, Darryl Brown, has been singing the praises of this compassionate leader for many years.
It was my great honor to meet Father and Darryl late last year to discuss their experience regarding how the institution approached a spate of racial incidents that had occurred at the school and the responsibility it had to its students. As a leader and Jesuit priest, Father sees racism as a moral issue “We need to see each other as equals and develop reverence, respect, and affection for people that are different from ourselves.”
Father McShane entered the Society of Jesus in 1967 and was ordained a priest in 1977. He received both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Boston College and master’s degrees in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in 1977. He completed his doctorate, in the history of Christianity, at the University of Chicago in 1981. He assumed the presidency at Fordham in 2003.
When asked to define a good leader, Father McShane shared, “A person humble enough ask advice and wise enough to follow it.” As a white leader of a predominantly white university, he has sought out people of color to learn from so he can develop the right approach to making sustainable changes at Fordham. He calls these individuals his wisdom figures and admits that learning their stories and getting to know them personally is eye-opening, liberating, and ever-evolving.
Darryl, a former member of the Board of Trustees, is one of those wisdom figures. For years, they have been working together to address racism before the events of 2020, when it became more urgent for institutions to take a stand. Father McShane created a task force that included students, faculty, staff, alumni, and experts to offer him recommendations. Changes implemented over the last five years have included diversifying the faculty, board, and administrative staff. The university’s first Chief Diversity Officer was hired in 2017.
Last summer, Father McShane shared a comprehensive plan with his community in the Fordham newsletter after George Floyd’s death. Here is how he began his vital message:
After decades and centuries, we have still not created a nation and a culture in which all citizens are truly equal, a nation in which each citizen is treated with dignity.
The Black community has never enjoyed the kind of respect and has never had access to the range of opportunities, that other communities in our country have had. The protests that have occurred across the country and that have brought together people from every race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and age group in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd are both a cry of the heart coming from a community that has been the victim of systemic racism for our entire history, and a call to a national examination of conscience on race relations and on racism itself. And a call to action for Fordham.
The letter goes on to provide detail related to these six tenets to address racism and advocate for justice at Fordham:
1. Developing robust admissions strategies for the effective recruitment of students of color
2. Recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty, administration, and staff
3. Developing curricular and co-curricular initiatives that support the imperative of confronting racism and educating for justice
4. Creating a more welcoming and affirming campus
5. Building lasting partnerships with our neighbors
6. Amplifying our voice in educating for justice beyond the campus
After sending out the letter and sharing the new strategies, Father said he received a lot of support from the community but he also made a few enemies. When hearing about that, one of his wisdom figures said, “Those were good enemies to make.”
His process of loving, listening, learning, and leading will continue in this area at the university. For example, he only recently learned that the average wealth is a black family one-tenth of the average white family’s wealth, which brings more fuel to his commitment to making a difference. Father McShane was one of the nominees for the inaugural Compassionate Leaders Awards for 2020 in the education category to recognize his work at Fordham related to addressing racial injustice.
If you know of a compassionate leader who has a story that can inspire others to lead with love, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.