Thomas J. Shelley's Fordham: A History of the Jesuit University in New York

Reviewed by Chris Stasnyiak

Fordham: A History of the Jesuit University in New York: 1841 - 2003  Thomas J. Shelley Fordham University Press, 2016 $39.95

Fordham: A History of the Jesuit University in New York: 1841 - 2003
Thomas J. Shelley
Fordham University Press, 2016
$39.95

Rev. Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, a Fordham emeritus professor of church history, has put his keen research and writing skills to constructive use in Fordham: A History of the Jesuit University in New York. This history of the Bronx university, written as part of its 175th anniversary, is no short read. The narrative stretches to just over 500 pages. In less expert hands this would be a slog of a tome. But Shelley’s prose makes it a much quicker read, as it ranges over the school’s history, from its humble beginnings as St. John’s College (the Fordham name would come much later) in a relatively pastoral swath of southern Westchester County, to its current status as one of the top Catholic universities in the country.

The book represents another addition to the histories of American Jesuit educational institutions that have emerged in recent years, such as Anthony Andreassi’s Teach Me to Be Generous (Fordham University Press, 2014), and R. Eric Platt’s Sacrifice and Survival (University of Alabama Press, 2014), with more coming down the pipeline. This flowering is as much a product of time as anything else, for these schools have managed to survive long enough to reach centennials, bicentennials, or, in this case, a dodransbicentennial -- any milestone a school’s leadership (or, marketing and development staff) think worthy of commemorating.

The celebratory nature of these histories makes them a unique sub-genre. More often than not, they are written by a professor of that school and published by an in-house press. As a result, authors like Shelley have the unenviable task of balancing congratulatory motives with more objective historical analysis. Fordham is no exception to the rule. The accolades come early, starting with a preface that pointedly proclaims the University’s recent 500 million dollar capital fundraising campaign, a stark contrast to the school’s earlier decades of financial precarity.

But this is not to say that these histories are without merit. As case studies, they can often help shed light onto many larger historical trends. But they are historical resources, and never, or rarely, push historiography into new territory. In this regard Fordham is more successful than most. Shelley expertly balances the tension of celebration and historical study. Through the lens of Fordham, one gets a glimpse into the larger evolution of Catholic universities in the United States, and historical developments within its specific, New York context.

As a whole, Shelley is even-handed, examining Fordham’s growing pains and triumphs. While the book’s arc is a progressive one, it is not altogether a smooth history, Shelley demonstrates throughout. The survival of the school was for decades no sure thing. Nor did its leadership always handle obstacles in stride. Often the school was caught up in overlapping politics within New York, and Catholic, and Jesuit circles. Even as the school grew in size and prestige, becoming the research university it is today, it stood on shaky financial ground through much of the twentieth century, particularly in comparison to other, comparably-sized private universities in the state, like Columbia, New York, and Rochester University.

Drawing on meticulous research, Shelley weaves together standards of institutional histories (e.g., new constructions; the highlights, and lowlights, of presidential terms) with rich anecdotes of the school’s travails (e.g., the often contentious relationship between the main campus and its very successful law school; less successful ventures like the ill-fated medical school, and a later experiential college). He is at his best retelling accounts like the school’s loss and recovery of accreditation in the 1930s, a near-death blow to its fortuitous relationship with Robert Moses. (While the urban planner has a very complex and controversial legacy, Fordham was a remarkable beneficiary of his Lincoln Square Renewal Project vision: arranging for the school’s purchase of land, or what became its Columbus Circle campus, at a massive bargain.) Through these Fordham-specific narratives, one gets passing glances at larger historical moments and a sense of how they shaped the university. Some will be familiar to all readers—the wave of student activism in the 1960s that erupted on campuses of all types, the adjustments it made alongside other Catholic colleges after Vatican II, a long decline in Jesuits that were once fixtures of the Bronx campus. Others may be more surprising, like the student body’s overall support for the witch-hunt tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Two New York-specific narratives stand out in the book. One of the more intriguing dynamics Shelly explores is the rise and fall of a larger constellation of Jesuit universities within the city. Fordham today is the Jesuit university of New York, as its website and promotional material all prominently highlight. Yet, for much of the school’s early history this was not the case. Fordham for some time was one of many Jesuit colleges in the city through the early 20th century, and was in competition with Brooklyn College, the College of St. Francis Xavier, and St. Peter’s College (across the Hudson River in Jersey City). As Shelley illustrates, Fordham played second-fiddle to Xavier especially, for many decades the more prestigious and successful institution, largely because of its Manhattan location (just off Union Square). Fordham only emerged from this larger field as the city’s Jesuit university because of its outer-borough location. For much of its early history, geography proved a challenge. But as the other institutions found themselves hemmed in by denser and more expensive urban neighborhoods, the “bucolic Bronx” suddenly gave the school physical room to grow. Thus, around World War I these other schools were shorn of their college departments -- leaving high schools in their wake -- the Jesuits’ university resources were consolidated at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. Of course, changing demographics played their part, too, as Irish Catholics moved out of lower Manhattan to the outer boroughs, and the neighborhood surround Xavier became increasingly commercial and industrial.

Indeed, the Bronx in many ways grew up with and around the school. As Shelley points out, Fordham predates the borough by several decades, as the Bronx only took formal shape as a municipality in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, through a combination of consolidations. While the school’s location had originally been chosen in part for its rural character, by the start of the twentieth century New York’s urban landscape had reached up and around the campus, particularly after the Grand Concourse was laid out, and the Third Avenue El extended to the campus in 1901. As Fordham grew, its relatively pastoral surroundings became graded and surveyed into city streets.

The university’s relationship to the Bronx has not always been straightforward, but the university has stayed committed to the Bronx, for better and for worse. This is best illustrated by the 1960s and 1970s. The Bronx suffered under the complex economic and social ills that comprised the “urban crisis” more than New York City as a whole. And other institutions, notably NYU, left. But Fordham, like many Catholic institutions stayed. And helped provide support and resources to groups like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Of course, it remains a question whether the school could have departed easily. But its commitment to the Bronx is noteworthy, if something Shelley could have explored more.

On that note, the book is not without shortcomings. It is a pretty traditional history. The main actors are Fordham’s leadership: an array of professors, priests, presidents, and prelates. Students, the lifeblood of any educational institution, and their lived experience, are consigned to broad detail. They show up as collective units, in sports teams or as protesting “radicals,” but individual voices are few and far between, save for excerpts Shelley pulls from the student paper, The Ram.

Further, the specific focus of such an institutional history means that much of the larger history of Catholic New York is found only in the background. Fordham’s rise to regional and later national prominence reflects a larger trajectory of the city’s Catholic community, as it shed much of its working class roots over the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In this sense Fordham is a useful case study of that demographic arc, and how it played out in the Catholic university. But those looking for larger insights into the rich tradition of “Catholic New York,” a mosaic of influential institutions like the periodicals Commonweal and America or individuals like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the recently-deceased Dan Berrigan, S.J., will not find them here. A better starting point for that question would be Patrick McNamara’s more synthetic (and more manageable) New York Catholics (Orbis Books, 2014).

But these pitfalls are more a product of the genre. Overall the book is a remarkable achievement. And single volumes can only do so much. Fordham provides rich stories. As a resource, it will be of interest to non-Fordham alums interested by the history of Catholic higher education, and of Catholic New York.


Chris Staysniak is a PhD candidate at Boston College.