In an online forum for alumni, Fordham’s deans of arts and sciences detailed many signs of progress in efforts to eradicate racism at the University, but also made clear that the work has just begun.

The April 29 event was the deans’ second forum for alumni on their commitment to furthering the University’s action plan for addressing racism and educating for justice. Fordham announced the plan in June 2020 after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice prompted members of the Fordham community to describe their own experiences of discrimination on campus.

“We’re asking hard questions, addressing proposals that have come forward, and moving forward indeed with hope and confidence into a future … that is marked by greater inclusivity, greater diversity, and greater commitment shared to building a much more just world as we educate for justice and seek to eradicate racism,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, in opening remarks.

Father McShane and the four deans were joined by moderator Valerie Irick Rainford, FCRH ’86, a Fordham trustee who is spearheading anti-racism training efforts within the University, and Rafael Zapata, Fordham’s chief diversity officer.

The panelists spoke of changes underway in the curriculum, recruitment of faculty and students, new programs, and other efforts to embed anti-racism in the University and effect permanent change.

“For students to come here from different backgrounds, it is vitally important that they feel that this institution represents them, that they do not feel like … they are here on sort of sufferance, that they feel that their communities are a part and parcel of what makes Fordham tick, what makes Fordham an excellent place,” said Tyler Stovall, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Faculty Diversity, Community Connections

Stovall emphasized the importance of forging links between the University and the diverse, vibrant communities surrounding the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses. Zapata noted current efforts like a collaboration with the Bronx Book Festival and a speaker series focused on Bronx writers facilitated by faculty. “We are an institution of this wonderful borough, and I think that’s something we need to talk about a little bit more,” he said.

In efforts to diversify the faculty, Eva Badowska, Ph.D., dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and associate vice president for arts and sciences, said 50% of the arts and sciences faculty members recruited to begin this academic year are people of color. In addition, Fordham announced the creation of the Margaret Peil Distinguished Chair in African and African American Studies and is currently recruiting for a newly created postdoctoral fellowship in critical race studies in the sociology and anthropology department, as well as a new position in the English department—a rhetoric specialist—to support the faculty’s work on revising the composition program toward anti-racist learning objectives and pedagogy.

Arts and Sciences also announced the creation of a new affiliate program in African and African American studies to elevate that department’s visibility and foster an interdisciplinary approach to anti-racism, Badowska said. Fifteen faculty members across departments have committed to joining the initiative.

On the point of hiring diverse faculty, Rainford noted that “once you hire those individuals, I think it’s also about inclusion and access.”

Stovall said a newly formed group of Fordham faculty members of color would be meeting soon to discuss diversity among faculty and at the University generally. “I think these leaders are going to have an awful lot to say, and it’s going to be up to us to listen,” he said.

He pointed out the importance of integration, “one of the terms we tend not to talk about.”

“Ultimately, what we are all about in this endeavor is producing an integrated educational experience and ultimately an integrated society,” he said. “Study after study has shown, in despite of people’s fears of integration, that actually integrated education benefits not just students of color but all students, and makes them stronger students.”

“This is a major pathway towards the ultimate goal of Fordham University,” he said.

Zapata said his office is offering a grant program titled Teaching Race Across the Curriculum to help academic departments integrate questions of race within their courses, particularly those that all students take.

“Students want to see themselves in the people that teach them, that they encounter throughout [the University], but they also want to see themselves in the curriculum. They’ve talked a lot about that,” he said.

Expanding Scholarship and Internship Opportunities

Laura Auricchio, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, pointed to the Office of Undergraduate Admission’s “above-and-beyond” efforts to increase diversity among incoming students. Changes this year include an effort “to appreciate and value a wider range of student experiences in the admissions process,” she said, as well as new events for prospective students of color who would be part of the fall 2021 entering class.

Also important, Auricchio said, is the recently created Trustee Diversity Scholarship Fund, which grew out of a scholarship fund that Rainford founded. “Before we could even announce it, we were starting to get donations,” Rainford said.

A new Cultural Engagement Internships program, funded by Fordham College at Lincoln Center and Fordham College at Rose Hill, has created paid internships that place students with New York nonprofits and cultural organizations that mostly serve communities of color or advance the work of anti-racism. “This opens up the internship opportunities to students who might not otherwise be able to afford” to take unpaid internships, Auricchio said.

And diversity in the yearlong Matteo Ricci Seminar for high-achieving students on both campuses has grown by opening it up to all students who want to apply, rather than relying on a select pool of students recommended by faculty, she said; she also cited the importance of bringing on Assistant Dean Mica McKnight, a woman of color, as co-leader for the Fordham College at Lincoln Center program.

Supporting Students

In other efforts on the undergraduate level, Maura Mast, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, said administrators on both campuses are developing a program to support first-generation students—61% of whom are students of color—and their families as the students navigate college life. At Rose Hill, the college is expanding access to undergraduate research opportunities by developing a one-credit course on the ins and outs of conducting research, such as developing a proposal and finding a mentor, Mast said.

“It’s … so important that we intentionally support students as they are and who they are, when they get to Fordham and when they’re at Fordham—that we are transparent and effective in this work,” she said.

In a culmination of longstanding efforts to increase diversity in the college’s Honors Program, 60% of students offered admission this year are either BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or people of color) or first-generation students, Mast said.

The University has also secured a planning grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to join a national learning community aimed at building capacity for developing inclusive, equitable, anti-racist approaches to STEM education—in first-year “gateway” courses, in particular—to support students who are underrepresented in these fields, she said.

The panelists took questions, including one about why the University doesn’t have an Asian American studies program with a major and minor offered. Badowska said she had met with members of the faculty—which would have to propose any new program, according to University statutes—about surveying the existing classes and resources to see what might be offered immediately while they work on developing a program.

“It is the curriculum that reveals who we are, and it is our academic programs that say we’re an anti-racist university or we are not an anti-racist university,” she said. “So that’s one of the reasons why an Asian American studies program is so critical for us to develop at this moment.”

Eradicating Racism

In response to another question—“Do you really believe that racism can be eradicated at Fordham?”—Rainford spoke of a long-term effort.

“There are some that still believe that racism doesn’t exist,” said Rainford, who is Black. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s in the fabric of everything in the country.”

“It will take time and effort, and we will not eradicate racism in our lifetime, but we certainly can help advance racial equity,” such as through the efforts the deans described, she said.

Zapata responded, “It’s going to take courage, the courage to … listen to the experiences of people who don’t always feel they have a chance to voice their experiences.”

Stovall said, “We currently live in a world where scientists are literally talking about creating human immortality in less than a century. So in that kind of world, I think all sorts of things are possible, including eradicating racism.”

Hurdles to Surmount

Asked about obstacles the University faces, Mast mentioned funding—for staffing, on-campus housing, and financial aid, for instance.

Badowska spoke of the challenges that would be inherent in changing the University’s culture to a point where everyone in the arts and sciences community would possess the five competencies that the deans have proposed:

  • Knowledge about racism, white privilege, and related topics;
  • Self-knowledge and a commitment to self-work and continuous learning in these areas;
  • Commitment to disrupting microaggressions and racist dynamics in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond;
  • Commitment to systemic change through examining policies and practices to make sure they support racial equity; and
  • Reimagined community and allyship, or a capacity to form equitable partnerships and alliances across racial lines.

“We know that we have a long road before we can say that everyone has these five capacities, but we’ve identified them,” she said.

The event drew 64 attendees, nearly all of whom stayed nearly a half-hour beyond the event’s one-hour allotted time.

“That, I think, shows the great hunger and thirst that the people of Fordham have for this great work that we’re about together,” Father McShane said. “One of the things we have to remind ourselves is that this is a beginning, and that’s an important observation and an important thing for us to own. We have a long journey ahead of us, but we are up for it and will keep at it.”