illustration of Father McShane
Illustration by Kevin Sprouls
Cura Personalis

The Service of Father McShane

During his 19-year tenure as president of Fordham University, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., has lent his vision and given his deep commitment to the Law School. His leadership has been a driving force behind the Law School’s rise to become the nationally recognized institution it is today.
By Jennifer Altmann
collage of images with Father McShane
From left, Father McShane at the Law School diploma ceremony in 2021; with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in 2018; cutting the ribbon at the new Law School building dedication in 2016; and speaking at the FLAA Annual Luncheon in 2011
IN THE LATE 1930s, Owen McShane started classes at Fordham Law School. A high school teacher and coach, he attended evening classes before going home to his young family. He was deeply influenced by the Law School’s emphasis on service, and, after graduating as a member of the Class of 1940, he would go on to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II and worked for many years at the U.S. State Department.

That commitment to service left an indelible mark on McShane’s son: Joseph M. McShane, who would go on to become a Jesuit and the president of Fordham University. “[My father] was immensely proud of the Law School and grateful for his Fordham education,” Father McShane said. “The emphasis on service really changed him.”

That ethos was the driving force behind Father McShane’s transformative leadership of the University. He has been intimately involved with the Law School during his tenure, from reshaping the physical campus to enhancing the school’s academic quality.

collage of images that include Father McShane
From left: with former Dean John Feerick in 2014; with civil rights activist and U.S. District Judge Robert Carter in 2009; with Judith Livingston and then Dean Michael Martin at the new Law School building’s Topping Out Ceremony in 2012.
After nearly two decades as Fordham’s president, Father McShane announced his intention to step down at the end of the 2021–2022 academic year. As he prepared the University—and himself—for this transition, he reflected on his pride in the Law School’s growth and development. “It’s a real center of excellence,” he said. “Over the years, it has produced an extraordinary kind of lawyer.”

“His tenure has raised the stature of the University as a whole,” said Law School Dean Matthew Diller, “and that has greatly benefited the Law School.”

A Vision of Excellence

During Father McShane’s presidency, the Law School has been transformed by the construction of its spectacular 22-story building, which opened in 2014. Clad in arcs of glass and metal, the building, designed by architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, has won numerous awards.

Father McShane’s devotion to the project was evident from the start. “It was his vision,” said Dean Diller. “He was committed to the project early, and he worked to make it happen. He wanted a building not just to house the classes, faculty, and administration, which we desperately needed, but a building that would raise our aspirations, enable students to think in loftier ways, and send a message to the world about the excellence and caliber of the University.”

collage of images featuring Father McShane
From left: with Dean Martin and doctorate of letters recipient Michelle DePas ’92 in 2012; with then Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan in 2012; with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Dean Matthew Diller at the Fordham-Stein Prize Gala in 2017.
The previous building “was too small for what the Law School was doing and aspired to do,” Father McShane said. “We wanted a signature building that was airy and light and would call attention to the Law School in a new and important way.”

With its breathtaking views and skylit atrium, the 468,000-square-foot building has a modern moot and trial court facility and a 90,000-volume law library. The natural light, clean lines, and feeling of spaciousness match the Law School’s ambitions. “When prospective students come on admitted student days, they are bowled over by it,” said Dean Diller. “Before we had the building, we were an excellent law school, but people would look around and think, ‘It doesn’t look like a great law school.’ … Now they look around and it all makes sense. It encourages you to elevate everything you do.”

His steady leadership and good humor transformed Fordham and the lives of its students.
Palmina Fava ’97
The building’s orientation toward the Lincoln Center plaza speaks to the school’s growing relationships with Fordham’s other schools. And the building’s beauty and resources have made it a hub for the legal profession, with many organizations seeking to hold their meetings and conferences in its event spaces.

While the first nine stories of the building are occupied by the Law School, the upper floors serve as a residence hall for 430 undergraduates. Sharing the building with undergraduates has promoted synergies, both formal and informal. “Both groups like to sneak into the other’s cafeteria,” Father McShane noted.

Leadership Through Crisis

Father McShane’s support for the Law School during the 2008 financial crisis was also critical. For several years after the recession, there was a decline in hiring in the legal profession and a 40 percent nationwide drop in applications to law schools. Father McShane enabled the Law School to make a number of key moves to retain its quality, most importantly by reducing the size of incoming classes, despite the financial impact on the University. “It was a decision prioritizing excellence,” said Dean Diller. “The message was to maintain our academic standards, and if that meant smaller class sizes, so be it.”

“We wanted to take the long view and protect the quality of the student body,” Father McShane said. “The recession wasn’t going to last forever, and we didn’t want to be hamstrung by short-term thinking.”

The move proved to be beneficial. Today, the Law School’s admissions process is more selective than ever, and the members of its faculty are nationally respected as leading scholars in a wide variety of areas. “Our reputation has grown far beyond New York,” said Father McShane. “The Law School is a calling card that allows us to open doors.”

collage of images including Father McShane
From left: Father McShane with (left to right) Dean Matthew Diller, former Dean John Feerick ’61, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, University Provost Stephen Freedman, and Hon. Denny Chin ’78 at the 2015 Fordham-Stein Prize Gala; conferring an honorary degree on Chief U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in 2022; with alumni Frank Lucianna ’51 and Joseph DiMaria ’56 in 2011.
Father McShane also ensured that the Law School’s signature programs remained fully funded through the crisis. John D. Feerick, FCRH ’58, LAW ’61, who was dean of the Law School for 20 years and for whom the Feerick Center for Social Justice is named, credited Father McShane for “saving my social justice center 12 years ago when its financial underpinning was precarious.” That support allowed the center to help others affected by the flagging economy through programs like the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO), which assists economically distressed New Yorkers with consumer debt collection matters in New York City Civil Court. Thanks to Father McShane’s support, both CLARO and the Feerick Center continue to help New Yorkers in crisis to this day.

Twelve years later, as New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, Father McShane’s steady hand at the helm helped the Fordham community endure through some of the most challenging years in its history.

We wanted to take the long view and protect the quality of the student body.
Fr. Joseph McShane
He made what he called the “difficult but necessary decision” to suspend face-to-face classes on March 9, 2020, and transition to remote learning for the rest of the semester. Then he established the Fordham Forward Task Force, which worked to prepare the University for reopening safely for the 2020–2021 academic year and again this year. Father McShane worked closely with the task force, the Board of Trustees, the Faculty Senate, and the finance office to balance budget gaps caused by the pandemic, and ensured that not only would a Fordham education sustain its high quality through the disruption, but that no employees would need to be laid off.

“He put people first,” said Dean Diller.

As a result, the University emerges from the pandemic with the strength to continue to fulfill its mission. This success led New York state to ask Father McShane to serve on the New York Forward Advisory Board to help shape the state’s plan for reopening after the pandemic.

collage of images with Father McShane
From left: with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016; with Dean Diller and then FLAA President Palmina Fava ’97 at the 2022 FLAA Annual Luncheon; with Dean Diller at his final Law School Diploma Ceremony in 2022.

A Tradition of Service

Throughout his tenure, Father McShane has forged close ties to the Law School’s alumni through a range of events, from large annual gatherings to summer cocktail parties, and yearly dinners held at one of Arthur Avenue’s legendary Italian restaurants. He prioritized these as opportunities to strengthen networks and revitalize friendships through one-on-one interactions with alumni and faculty. The events also gave Father McShane an opportunity “to hear from people in small-scale conversations,” he said. “I wanted to hear what their sense of the Law School was and continue to be aware of market needs, for preparing students for the legal profession or appointment or election to the bench.”

Palmina Fava ’97, president of the Fordham Law Alumni Association, is grateful to Father McShane for his “tireless efforts to increase Fordham’s national reputation” and his guidance of capital campaigns that led to expanded student scholarships. His steady leadership and good humor “transformed Fordham and the lives of its students,” she said.

Fordham Law School remains a tradition in Father McShane’s family: His younger brother Thomas A. McShane is a member of the Class of 1982, and his niece graduated in May 2021. But what has also remained is the fealty to serving others that the elder McShane modeled for his son.

He put people first.
Dean Matthew Diller
“The Law School has produced talented lawyers who are determined to use what they’ve learned in the service of others,” said Father McShane. “It’s an elite law school that isn’t elitist. … Service is seen not as an add-on, but as an integral part of the school.”

Father McShane’s leadership has undergirded that mission, according to Dean Diller. “He sets a moral compass for the University,” said Dean Diller. “A lot of tough things have happened in the world, and he communicated strongly about those events, always from the vantage point of looking to our deeper humanity and our better selves, and asking us to rise above our individual situations.”