Dean Matthew Diller in black suit and President Tania Tetlow in powder blue dress

Leading with Authenticity

A conversation between
Fordham University President Tania Tetlow
& Fordham Law Dean Matthew Diller
What does it take to be a true leader in troubling times? As 2022 drew to a close, Dean Matthew Diller sat down with Tania Tetlow, Fordham University’s new president, to discuss their own unique styles of leadership, the crucial role lawyers have in solving the hard problems of our democracy, and how to prepare law students for a career “in the service of others.”
Edited by Paula Derrow
Photos by Chris Taggart
Dean Matthew Diller: I wanted to start by talking with you about leadership—what it means, your philosophy of leading, and how your legal training and experience play into it.

President Tania Tetlow: One thing I’ve learned is that you have to have a variety of skills—it’s the range that matters. And you must be authentic. The myth of perfectionism is just silliness.

MD: How did you come to that realization?

TT: In some ways, it’s my awareness of what Saint Ignatius [the founder of the Jesuits] knew, 500 years before all the business school reviews came up with it. [To be a good leader] you need to be aware of your own flaws, have the ability to listen hard and take in information in all sorts of ways, and then be able to sit with it and give decisions the time they need while checking your gut and your values.

MD: I’d imagine that giving yourself license to be authentic is easier than constantly putting on a persona.

TT: Yes! I’m really bad at putting on a persona. After you prove your competence to people, being human and warm and funny when you can be is so appreciated. I mean, we know this as law professors, right? Our students laugh at our jokes—maybe beyond how funny they are—because they’re grateful that we’re making the attempt to bring them in and connect.

MD: How have your legal training and skills as a lawyer played into your leadership style?

TT: Well, you’ll be delighted to know that lawyers are taking over as university presidents. Out of the 27 presidents of Jesuit schools, up to six of us are lawyers by training. A lot of those legal skills come into play in the job, such as the ability to take in a lot of information and quickly hone in on what matters—all those years of reading boxes of documents as an associate finally paid off for me! And then there’s the ability to persuade, which comes from having been a litigator, a prosecutor, and a teacher. You learn to avoid jargon and talking just to hear yourself talk. You have to really think about what the people you’re addressing know and how you can help them. You want to persuade people to come around to your point—which is kind of a rare skill, but fun to do.

A Fordham Lawyer’s Worldview

TT: Now I’ll ask you: What do you think lawyering does for leadership? What have you experienced and learned about leadership from being a dean?

MD: First is the importance of service—not just using one’s legal skills to help others, but also gaining perspective on your place in the world. Each of us needs to think about the impact we have on others and on the institutions we enter. People really value that quality in Fordham lawyers. Yes, they’re super smart; yes, they have strong legal skills. But beyond that, they focus on service and contributing. It’s a question of who you want beside you in the office at 2 a.m. managing a crisis. And I think that goes back to the Jesuit mission and the values of the Law School.

TT: I love that. There are lawyers who will do your bidding, and then there are those who will help you really solve problems in all their complexity, including the moral dimension. Those lawyers are worth their weight in gold.

Dean Diller interviewing President Tetlow
MD: That’s why so many of our graduates end up in leadership positions. We don’t consciously say to students, “We’re going to teach you how to lead.” Rather, we emphasize a certain worldview that causes people to naturally look to our graduates as leaders.

TT: So much of what we teach students is not what we lecture to them—it’s what we model for them.

MD: That’s right. Another aspect of our training as lawyers, and one that can cause issues for leaders, is thinking about how each decision sets a precedent. We train our students to look within each case they study not only for the resolution to the dispute at hand, but how the decision in that case impacts future disputes as a matter of precedent. Connecting the past to the future this way and thinking about a decision’s future consequences can be an asset to a leader, but it can also be a liability if it encourages risk aversion.

“We emphasize a certain worldview that causes people to naturally look to our graduates as leaders.”
Matthew Diller
TT: Lawyers are trained to see what might go wrong, which is a valuable skill when you’re writing a contract, but not so good when you’re trying to solve a complicated problem. You can’t just say “no” all the time, right? The best lawyers know how to get to the answer, even if it requires creativity. So those analytical skills must be balanced with creativity and the ability to see beyond the way we’ve always done things. Thinking outside the box matters—especially now, as the world changes so quickly.

Expanding Our Perspective

MD: Another thing about lawyers and leadership is how we’re trained to see problems from other people’s perspectives.

TT: In law school, we teach that you can’t really know the strength of your own position until you can articulate the other side’s argument in the strongest way possible. Practicing that skill is a good reminder to constantly challenge your own thinking. The ability to argue the other side is probably the best lawyerly way to get to creativity.

MD: I agree—and it’s not just being able to articulate the arguments but also understanding the power of the arguments.

TT: It can feel jarring to a law student or a young lawyer to flip and argue the other point, but it’s important not to see that as moral relativism. It’s about being willing to challenge your own beliefs to make sure you are right. That’s something [lawyers] bring to the table, along with a total commitment to critical thinking, civil discourse, and free speech. That’s how we get to the truth—we’re willing to be uncomfortable sometimes.

MD: It’s all about coming to terms with differences, isn’t it? … Which brings me to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. How does that figure into your thinking about universities?

TT: Universities are tremendous gatekeepers of opportunity. We need to think about that when choosing who we admit and create communities where students learn as much from each other as they do from us. In geographically, economically, and racially diverse campus communities, students get to experience people who grew up in very different environments. Often, they learn how much more they have in common than they might have expected.

MD: Our culture [at Fordham Law] is really rooted in the idea that you can have an impact through how you use your legal skills, both on an individual level and on institutions, communities, and our nation. That’s inherent to our mission. We want students to walk away feeling that they have a set of skills that can be brought to bear to help people. At the same time, we’ve also tried to be more thoughtful about how we can support our students so they can go out into the world ready to make a difference. We want to make sure they can work across cultures and know how to build bridges. That involves forming connections and listening, not just in a superficial way, but in a way that enables them to understand and absorb the meaning and power of what they’re hearing.

“Change is so often about a million tiny acts of courage. And those moments really do help you keep your character and sense of self.”
Tania Tetlow

Finding the Truth

TT: I think what you’re saying—the willingness to be open and not to get too attached to the way you’ve always done things—is very Ignatian. It’s also what makes a really good lawyer—that ability to find the truth rather than getting stuck in what you think you know.

MD: Our students also need to understand what’s going on in the larger world. We like to think that the arc [of history] bends toward justice, but it seems to take a long time getting there. Still, though our world is riddled with injustice, students can make a difference in people’s lives. There are tough moments when it seems extremely difficult to make progress on a large scale, but you can always make progress on a small scale and help people with individual problems that are critical to their lives.

TT: There’s nothing that annoys me more than the idea that progress is inevitable. Change is so often about a million tiny acts of courage. And those moments really do help you keep your character and sense of self. As lawyers, we’re presented with a duty to represent a client as well as to preserve the values of our country, our legal structures, and democracy, not to mention basic civility. And those two things can sometimes feel in conflict, depending on the client and cause you’re representing. We need to be able to talk about that conflict openly and not just in legal ethics class. Law has so much power to do good—and to bring harm. As lawyers, we need to understand our responsibility to support the structures and ethics of our legal system, not just during the history-book-making moments but also in the very small moments—what you choose to exaggerate or omit before a judge, or how, as a prosecutor, you treat opposing counsel.

MD: So much of our public discourse is dominated by Twitter feeds and sound bites. Training students to focus on rational discourse, the language of the law and of the Constitution—I know these tools can seem challenging to students in terms of their relevance. What would you say to the student who wonders, “Why is spending hundreds of hours reading Supreme Court decisions, old case law, or common law decisions about property rights in England important?”

TT: The notion that humanity just reinvents itself every five minutes is just wrong. Understanding human experience and why we’ve gotten to where we are is part of finding the answers. It also happens to be how you persuade a judge to take your side in a case. The idea that you can just start fresh and ignore all that [history] doesn’t work. There’s a role for turning up the heat and marching on a picket line. But what we teach law students—to engage in complexity, to really grapple with close readings of texts and hundreds of pages of opinions to find an answer—is unbelievably important to actual progress.

Fighting the Oldest Bias

MD: Over the past 40 years, women have entered the legal profession in numbers that are now equal to or greater than men. And yet there continue to be few women in positions of leadership [in law], particularly in the private sector at big firms. Why do you think that is?

TT: The oldest and deepest of the biases that we are all raised with is gender bias. It’s the filter through which all of us—men and women—see women, whether we perceive their passion as “hysteria” or their ability to keep hold of [their emotions] as “coldness.” Whatever the stereotype is, women have to walk a tightrope to [fight] against the filters through which we’re perceived. And so, a lot of our talent gets wasted. There are also obvious issues of balance between career and family, but that wouldn’t be so severe for women if society encouraged men to do an equal share of parenting and work in the home as well. We know from women’s educational achievements how much talent lies with our half of the human race, and we shouldn’t waste it.

MD: You’ve broken barriers as a female prosecutor and as the first female president of two major universities. As a pioneering leader, how have you faced these gender-related challenges?

TT: I can only look out of my own eyes, so it’s harder for me to see the jarring nature of being the first. What I do know is that it feels really good to shift the perception of what a university president looks like. But there are definitely moments when I’m aware that I have to grapple with how people see or understand me and walk a finer line to navigate those perceptions. That can be exhausting, but it has also become second nature.

MD: Do you have any advice for our women students and attorneys?

TT: Sometimes, with the best intentions, we tell women they can do anything they want—that there are no obstacles—because we don’t want to discourage them. I find myself not knowing when to tell my 10-year-old daughter that obstacles do exist because it feels heartbreaking to mention them. But being aware of the bias helps women navigate it. It helps them realize they’re not crazy. That’s important, because the worst-case scenario is when that bias gets implanted in the voice in your head, and you become doubtful of your own abilities. Women also have to guard against internalized bias, which can cause even more harm [than the biases of other people].

“Life is long, and you will do many, many things … So, breathe. The legal profession is an anxiety-fueled culture, which makes it even more important to find what you love about the law.”
Tania Tetlow

Practical Makes Perfect

MD: You started your career in legal academia as a clinical professor [as Felder-Fayard Professor of Law and director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at Tulane Law School]. How important are clinics to legal education?

TT: I loved teaching students how to actually practice law in the clinic. I’ve lectured to first-semester students about civil procedure in the classroom, and it’s so much more difficult to convey than when you are dealing with a real client whose life is at stake, as was often the case in [Tulane Law’s] Domestic Violence Clinic. In that situation, you learn why process matters, and you remember it for the rest of your life. I loved that chance to teach students the realities of legal practice, to think about ethics using real-life scenarios, and to help them see what it means to do public interest work, either as a volunteer or as a full-time job.

MD: I sometimes hear the distinction made that clinics are about practical skills, as opposed to academics. I think that’s a false distinction.

TT: The best way to teach doctrine is by engaging with it, right? To lock in a point of law by writing a brief about it and arguing to a court is what makes it all click. Our alumni tell us that their clinical experiences are what helped them make an appellate argument or save a client’s life. It doesn’t get better than that.

Learning to Breathe

MD: I’ve heard you talk a lot about the importance of mentors in your life. How can students find mentorship in today’s world of remote and hybrid work?

TT: I do think real mentorship requires physical presence. So much of that happens in the hallway, outside of billable hours. And so, that ability to be present, to get words of wisdom after the deposition, that really matters. I tell students to be brave about asking for mentorship. As I get older, I’ve learned how flattering it is to be asked to be a mentor, and how much we really learn when we get the chance to process our wisdom with young people. That’s just a delight. So, students should know that mentors are getting something out of it, too.

MD: Do you have any advice for law students today?

TT: Think about the arc of your career and don’t get stuck on any one track. Life is long, and you will do many, many things—as you and I have done in our legal careers. So, breathe. The legal profession is an anxiety-fueled culture, which makes it even more important to find what you love about the law. For some, that means working at an incredible law firm. For others, it’s jumping into a start-up and building something from scratch or doing public interest work. We need brilliant lawyers in the trenches doing all the above.

MD: While you’ve spent much of your life in New Orleans, we know that you were born here in New York City. Now that you’re here, what’s your thinking of the connection between Fordham and the city? And how does the city strike you as we emerge from the pandemic?

TT: While, of course, New York is everything to Fordham, I like to think that Fordham has also been a big part of New York. We are one of its anchor institutions, almost 200 years old, and helped make the city what it is. I absolutely love it here, the scale of the place, the incredible business, economic, and cultural offerings, it blows your mind—and makes it hard to know what to do at night! My parents met at Fordham as graduate students, and I spent the first two-and-a-half years of my life at 112th and Broadway. I learned to walk and talk here, and how to navigate a city playground. And I like to think those formative years are responsible for a little bit of my swagger—and my impatience. The whole world comes to New York—it’s an incredible microcosm of the globe. Having some of the most impoverished but determined people from every country in the world come together in one city, living in very close proximity and speaking different languages, is an experiment that should have failed. Instead, it has created the epicenter of so much of the world.

Watch or listen to the full conversation: