students outside wearing masks
University Leadership

During the Plague

By Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President

It is hard to overestimate the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacted upon our students, faculty, and staff, and their families, since March 2020. One faculty member likened it to running a marathon underwater. The same is true for the senior leadership of the University, of course, at a moment that demands more of us than any other time in my 40-year career in higher education.

President Joseph M. McShane

That said, as a Jesuit university we bring to the problem an intellectual and organizational agility, and the ethic of magis, the Latin word for more. It is a call to dig deeper into ourselves to discern the right course and act upon it. Therefore, though there was no playbook for handling the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic played to the strengths of Jesuit thinking and approaches to change. 

The Jesuits have been a global presence since their founding in 1540 (and have a presence in more than 100 nations today): we have a 481-year history of rapid, and sometimes radical, adaptation to different cultures and political regimes. Agility is built into our mission and our formation, and is a hallmark of how Jesuit colleges and universities operate. Thus in the summer of 2020, the university embarked upon an all-hands effort to create a flexible hybrid learning environment that incorporated planning from 13 separate working groups that included faculty, students, staff, and administrators from every school and division at Fordham.

Thus in the summer of 2020, the University embarked upon an all-hands effort to create a flexible hybrid learning environment that incorporated planning from 13 separate working groups that included faculty, students, staff, and administrators from every school and division at Fordham.

The working groups committed themselves to intensive and innovative planning sessions across schools and divisions. Having absorbed the lessons from our two-day pivot from in-person to remote instruction in March, they considered every area of University operations: housing and dining, Fordham’s libraries, classroom configuration, IT infrastructure, remote learning equipment (including free laptops and personal hotspots for students who did not have adequate internet access), COVID-19 testing, isolation, and quarantine needs, and the very important maintenance of a sense of community among our 24,000 students, faculty, and staff.

Critical academic and administrative units pivoted to remote operations while maintaining continuity and effectiveness. And we incorporated new strategies throughout the fall semester as conditions changed and unanticipated challenges arose. It was not perfect, of course—“Zoom fatigue” entered our lexicon—and we continue to incorporate lessons learned into our spring operations. But our distributed model of pandemic planning, and our modular “Jeopardy!” board budget strategy, allowed Fordham to continue delivering a superior education to our students and maintain a sense of community, without the layoff and furloughs that burdened many other institutions.

We are not out of the woods yet—far from it—but I can say honestly that we see a path forward. There will almost certainly be setbacks and detours. But the lesson we take from the pandemic is one we have always taught ourselves: we must continue to deliver a timeless education using whatever new tools come to hand.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President
Fordham University