SLICE OF RYE
It’s Always an Education with Ellen Fahey-Smith
BY JANICE LLANES FABRY
Whether in a leadership position on the board of School of the Holy Child or in the Provost’s Office at Fordham University, longtime Rye resident Ellen Fahey-Smith is committed to promoting core academic values. This stalwart of education is on a mission to advance the intellectual development and social growth of today’s young people in every way she can.
In her sixth year on Holy Child’s board of trustees, Fahey-Smith was elected chair of the all-girl Catholic college preparatory school. She stepped into her new role last summer with the profound appreciation and distinct vision of someone who has been integral to the Holy Child community since her daughter, Jacqueline, class of 2008, was a student.
“Holy Child played a strong role in my daughter’s growth and that of many young women who are truly transforming society. It continues to provide students with the strong, confident, and empathetic leadership needed now more than ever,” she remarked.
“It begins at the top with the extraordinary leadership of Colleen Pettus, our Head of School,” she continued. “The outstanding faculty are role models and experts in their fields, dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and empowering young women to achieve their goals and aspirations.”
During the pandemic, Fahey-Smith and Pettus found themselves in uncharted territory — the dramatic shift of in-class teaching to remote learning.
“Covid-19 altered the landscape of education and highlighted the inequities entrenched in the education system. We focused on prioritizing the health and safety of our students and community, along with strengthening DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] and antiracist strategic initiatives,” said Fahey-Smith.
She faced similar challenges at her day job as Associate Vice President in the Office of the Provost at Fordham University. After earning her undergraduate and MBA degrees from Fordham and working in international banking, she took time out to raise her three children. Her sons, Christopher and Connor, graduated from Fordham Prep, and Connor is now a senior at Fordham Law.
Her love of higher education led her on a new professional journey as she transitioned back to Fordham, initially focusing on financial matters. In 2007, during an extensive growth phase, she moved into academic administration. Later, she earned a doctorate in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania.
Fahey-Smith comes by her penchant for academia naturally. “My mother was a high school chemistry and physics teacher, and my grandmother was called ‘Hannah Book’ because she was rarely without a book in her hand,” she recalled.
In addition, there was a strong familial connection to Fordham University. Two of her siblings are graduates and her father worked in Development there.
“Fordham holds a special place in my heart. I am fortunate to have an opportunity to serve at an institution foundational to my formation,” she said. “The Jesuit ethos and tradition that were instilled in me helped shape my outlook and vision in my early career and continued to guide me as I transitioned back to Fordham.”
Fahey-Smith, who met her husband Christopher on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus when she was a freshman, attributes overcoming the challenges of the past year to this very foundation, from “addressing issues and solving problems to celebrating significant achievements.”
As Associate VP, Fahey-Smith is a key member of the leadership team that represents Academic Affairs in multiple areas, including Finance, Facilities, Development, and Human Resources. She has also been instrumental in expanding the University’s global presence and was routinely traveling to the UK, China, and South Africa before the pandemic.
When the Covid outbreak first hit, “we took an all hands-on-deck approach,” she noted. “The pandemic impacted our international operations initially, but thankfully, we have experienced administrators and deep relationships with our international partners. All worked tirelessly to ensure our students’ safe return.”
Her focus this school year included helping expedite the efforts of the Fordham Forward Task Force, established to coordinate plans for re-opening the campuses. She works closely with Provost Dennis Jacobs and provides the nine academic deans with the support and direction required to align budgets with priorities, strategic planning, and broader goals.
Despite all the disruptions to the education system, she is sanguine about the future.
“Shakespeare wrote three of his great tragedies when the bubonic plague closed London, and Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity when the plague cancelled classes at Cambridge. I’ve got to believe that Covid’s quarantine and isolation will spawn creative thinking.”
When Fahey-Smith comes up for air and is not attending late night-meetings or sending 4 a.m. work emails, you’re likely to see the longtime runner racing at a fast clip on the streets of the Sound Shore or New York City.
In recent months, however, she has devoted every spare moment to her 12-week-old grandson. “I sure hope there’s room for Christopher in the Fordham class of 2043.”