Following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the ensuing outcries about structural racism in society, Fordham Law School, like institutions everywhere, looked inward—and, a few months later, produced a plan for addressing racism within and beyond the campus community.
While Fordham Law School was founded to serve people who had traditionally been excluded from the legal field, “we have significantly more work to do … to truly ensure that all of our students, particularly those from underrepresented communities, experience a learning environment that is supportive and free from bias,” Matthew Diller, dean of the Law School, said in an October 2020 statement.
Among many other efforts, the school expanded its Increasing Diversity in Education and the Law (IDEAL) program, a pre-law program for New York-area college students from diverse backgrounds. In August 2021, the school launched its Realizing Excellence and Access in the Law (REAL) Scholars program to provide peer advising, mentoring, a pre-orientation program, and other support to first-year law students from underrepresented groups.
The Law School also brought in consultants for in-depth surveys that informed new diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts across the Fordham Law community.
These initiatives were enabled by benefactors including David Tanen, a 1996 Fordham Law graduate who has been a member of the Dean’s Planning Council and given back to the Law School for more than a dozen years, making philanthropic investments to enhance its educational environment.
His experience at Fordham Law continues to enrich his life, he said, because of the friendships, connections, and skills he gained there. A native of small-town Nahant, Massachusetts, he initially pursued a legal career by majoring in criminal justice at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He came to Fordham Law wanting to be a criminal defense attorney, but pivoted after graduation to work in the life sciences industry. Today, he is a partner with Two River, LLC, a venture capital firm in New York City that he co-founded in 2004. He has been a cofounder, officer, and director for a number of the firms incubated by Two River, including Kite Pharma, Inc.
Tanen has made major gifts in support of the Law School’s diversity efforts, helping to advance a key priority of Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, Fordham’s campaign to raise $350 million for enhancing the student experience across the University. And he previously provided funding for six professionalism fellows, upper-level law students who promote mentorship, professionalism, and inclusion among students as part of the Law School’s “house” system. Begun in 2019, the house system sets up communities of faculty, alumni, student advisers, and others to provide support and guidance for students.
Discussing his reasons for giving back to Fordham Law, he cited the collegial school character that he experienced as a student, as well as the Law School’s culture that makes change and progress in anti-racism efforts a realistic aspiration.
How did your giving in support of diversity efforts at Fordham Law come about?
It was shortly after the murder of George Floyd that I met with Dean Matthew Diller and Assistant Dean Vera Tkachuk, and we were talking through some of the initiatives that they wanted to implement. Of particular note was an Instagram account called Black at Fordham Law, which highlighted some of the concerns about discrimination. Dean Diller was understandably concerned about the student experience at Fordham Law and recognized that this is an issue that needed to be addressed and addressed quickly. Fostering a more inclusive community where people from all backgrounds feel that they are welcome is important, not just for the Law School but for all academic institutions and professional environments. This was something that resonated with me.
This was a seismic event—a cultural shift. There are challenging conversations to be had. My aim was to help provide resources to the Law School so they could implement programs and facilitate those discussions.
Has your own work shown you the importance of DEI efforts?
Absolutely. Having an understanding of different perspectives can only provide for a better experience in the classroom and in the conference room or boardroom. For a long time, boards were dominated largely by white men, but we have initiated efforts at our companies to expand diversity at the management and board levels.
Moreover, our portfolio companies research and develop novel therapeutic technologies intended to address unmet medical needs, primarily in oncology. In drug development, ensuring people from diverse backgrounds join clinical trials is key to advancing health equity. Participants in clinical trials should represent the patients that will use the medical products. This is often not the case—people from racial and ethnic minorities and other diverse groups are underrepresented in clinical research. This is a concern because people of different ages, races, and ethnicities may react differently to certain medical products. The Food and Drug Administration encourages diverse participation in clinical trials.
Tell me about your support for the house system and the professionalism fellows.
The house system is a unique way of providing support to students. It creates a smaller community within the larger Fordham Law School community that promotes mental health and well-being and teaches some of the softer skills that aren’t taught in the classroom, and which are important to developing legal skills and critical thinking. Being solution oriented, communicating effectively, and working collaboratively are vital skills that are necessary for being a successful attorney and a better advocate. The professionalism program helps develop these skills. It also helps develop extra-legal skills that may be necessary, like financial literacy, but that are also useful in your professional and personal lives, such as cross-cultural understanding.
Have you faced a career challenge that offers a lesson for today’s students?
Growing up, I knew that I wanted to go to Law School and focus on criminal law. As an undergraduate, I majored in criminal justice and at Fordham I focused primarily on criminal law classes and joined Fordham Law’s first trial advocacy team. Following graduation, however, I was unable to secure a position at any of the district attorney’s offices in New York. That’s when one of my classmates from Fordham Law reached out to me about an opportunity to join a boutique life science venture capital company. At the time, I wasn’t sure what a boutique life science company was. Nonetheless, disappointed with the failure to secure a position in criminal law, I decided to pivot to the corporate world, and it changed my life in meaningful ways.
Since then, together with my partners, we have built a number of successful biotechnology companies, created thousands of jobs, driven meaningful value for investors, and most importantly, brought life-saving therapies to patients who desperately need them. Venture capital was never a vocation that I had envisioned for myself. I always saw myself cross-examining someone in a courtroom rather than negotiating a contract in a conference room. The experience helped me to understand that when life presents you with challenges, you need to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities when they’re presented to you. It’s like the old adage goes—when life give you lemons, make lemonade.
This concept of adapting to change is nicely presented in a book I found influential—Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson. It’s about what you do when that “cheese” you’ve been chasing—in my case, being a criminal law attorney—is no longer there. I had to face my fears—“Okay, what do I do now? This is what I’ve built myself up to be over the last 24 years. Now, what am I? Where am I? How do I address this?” The lesson I learned is that you have to be open minded, you have to be flexible, and be ready to pivot to a new opportunity when it presents itself.
How did your Fordham Law education help you in this transition?
One of the things that I appreciate about Fordham Law is that it teaches you how to practice the law. At some other schools you learn about the philosophy of law, which is also important. However, with my Fordham Law education, I felt I was well prepared to practice as a criminal law attorney, and I was able to bring those same practical skills to a corporate law environment as well.
What’s a highlight from your student experience at Fordham?
Overall, I had a great experience at Fordham Law. Coming into Law School, we had all watched The Paper Chase and read One L by Scott Turow and feared a cutthroat environment where students would tear cases out of the books or steal your notes in order to gain an advantage. I had just the opposite experience. Our class was very collaborative and cooperative. That culture, the openness and the friendships that I’ve built and keep to this day, are some of the highlights of my Fordham Law experience.
Looking at the world today, what are you optimistic about?
I’m optimistic about my children and their future—not just my children, but their generation. I think that it’s a much different generation than when I grew up. They are more accepting of other cultures, sexual preferences, and gender identifications. America is still a very divided country, but I hope that the younger generation can bridge these issues and we will get past some of these challenges.
I’m also optimistic about the Law School. I am very happy with the direction and leadership of the deans and faculty. It’s the professionalism program, the DEI programs, the willingness to not only listen to the concerns that students have, but also address them, and to foster an environment where people feel comfortable expressing their views. Fordham is helping students not only to become successful professionally, but also to cultivate critical “soft skills” and demonstrate resilience.
The approach is clearly working—I recently learned that 94% of 2021 graduates are employed, which ties the school for No. 15 in the country. Also, last year’s incoming class had very strong scores, a 166 median on the LSAT and a median GPA of 3.7. And the school is ranked in the top 30 across 10 programs, from trial advocacy to criminal law and beyond, so the school really has amazing breadth.
What’s kept you involved with Fordham Law over the years?
Fordham Law’s motto is “In the service of others.” The Law School has helped me in countless ways, and so it’s rewarding to be able to give back to the Law School and its students, and hopefully they feel the same way.