Administrative Orthodoxy At Ave Maria

Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, Ave Maria University, and the town of Ave Maria, Florida (in that order) obviously isn’t attracting media acclaim in his effort to establish a conjoined orthodox Catholic University and Catholic town on a former tomato farm in Southwest Florida. No, he comes off as something as something of an Inquisitor, putting a farm of happily secular Florida tomatoes to the sword to make room for a bishopric of right-wing Catholics. The caviling about Monaghan, for the most part, is easily explained; Monaghan has explicitly proclaimed his intention of creating an orthodox Catholic University, and his critics despise the thought.

Monaghan’s truly revolutionary step here isn’t imagining a university – it’s that he hasn’t simply handed his dream over to the standard mush of college administration, but has remained deeply involved with the project – so far as to literally uproot the college over several states. The college’s move from the Midwest to Southwest Florida is a rather dramatic example of a founder’s influence, but American higher education seems to have altogether forgotten the experience of a living founder in this day of universal rule by amorphous faculty-trustee-administrator confederation (aka “our costs will always go up but no one knows who’s responsible”). Faculties are accustomed to Presidents who can be curbed when overly outspoken (Laurence Summers) and administrations are accustomed to routinely ignoring the wishes of donors and trustees (the Bass donation at Yale, the Robertson donation at Princeton). Monaghan is a very different quantity in this mix, an individual who hasn’t been content to see his wishes run aground in the morass of standard academic decision-making. He’s continued to exert a very active role in his University – a step that professors would see in almost any case as a clear intrusion into their purlieus.


There’s no question that Monaghan has a right to run his University differently from others – and refreshing to see that administrative sclerosis is not an essential condition in higher education, but recent events bring into question whether Monaghan’s model of University administration (especially the idea that it’s a portable commodity) is an entirely welcome shake-up. Inside Higher Ed recently reported several disquieting revelations about the University’s treatment of professors. Professor Stephen J. Safranek, of the Law school, was recently suspended without pay, and proceedings initiated to revoke his tenure, for an assortment of offenses for which he was “reprimanded” or “censured.” Three colleagues, Richard S. Myers, Mollie A. Murphy, and Joseph L. Falvey, Jr. have made a statement at the blog Mirror of Justice, denouncing these charges, and the manner in which they are being handled. They cite that many of the “offenses” were inflicted on the very dean, Bernard Dobranski, who is now dispensing his punishment. This slate of reprimands has been held as substance enough for his dismissal, yet little explanation has been provided as to why they are so – and there has been no review at any other level. The blog statement notes:

Indeed, the suspension occurred without deliberation by the full Board of Governors, without faculty consultation, without due process, and without any meaningful explanation as to why the circumstances satisfy the relevant standard of an “extraordinary” case.

Safranek was a prominent opponent of the school’s move to Florida, and unhappy with the University’s climate of hostility to dissenting opinion. Safanek was not merely suspended without pay pending the revocation of his tenure – an unusual measure, given the circumstances but additionally locked out of his office.

Safranek is not the only professor who’s received seemingly punitive justice from the University. Richard Myers, another Professor of Law, was removed from his committee chairmanship and had his salary frozen shortly after a vote of no confidence in the Dean in April 2006. Professor Charles Rice was term-limited out of a seat on the University’s board after expressing opposition to its move to Florida (in new measures that affected only him). After complaining to the board, Dobranski “decided not to reappoint” him to his professorship. The University board, which Rice condemned for its “robotic endorsement of the dean” has seen five resignations in the past month, including those of Robert George and Gerard Bradley. Replacements include a Florida real estate lawyer and a former fundraiser for Monaghan.

Is Monaghan within his rights in this? Well, yes. But is this the road to, as Monaghan has proclaimed, a future “Catholic Ivy”? Ave Maria is the first Catholic University founded in the country in over forty years; it is both declaredly orthodox and more sleekly run than most universities. On all of those counts, it would have attracted opposition. The University has invited much more serious criticism, however, in its cavalier treatment of tenure and summary and draconian punishments meted out to professors who question administrative decisions. The public actions of the administration have done much to tarnish Ave Maria’s image – and their muddled public explanations have only encouraged the worst suspicions. It is they who have invited invidious questions as to whether a central tenet of “authentic” Catholic education is the abrogation of faculty privileges and academic due process. With the University administration asserting its seeming infallibility, there’s good cause to question the future of “Catholic” higher education at Ave Maria.

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Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

7 thoughts on “Administrative Orthodoxy At Ave Maria

  1. A couple of distinctions:
    Ave Maria School of Law was created by 5 law professors who created a business plan and pledged their own savings to start it (including working for a year with out pay) to make it happen. They sought a limited amount of start-up capital from Tom Monaghan’s foundation (projected to end in 2009), which was promised (a promise that was subsequently broken to force a move to Floridia). AMSL is an independent law school governed by the non-profit laws of the state of Michigan and the standards of the American Bar Association and Catholic Social Teaching (incorporated into the mission and by-laws of the entity).
    It is important to note that this history of AMSL’s founding is documented in an early law review article writtn by Dean Dobranski, however, this history has been sanitized to scrub out the faculty that are now being purged. The new made up history can be found in recent AMSL publications and on the internet (wiki) to make Tom Monaghan the founder and thus justify his actions as the owner, visionary of the project against uppity faculty. This is a lie and a false framing of the facts.
    AMSL was not and is not affiliated with Ave Maria University or College, nor its governing structure. One of the conditions of getting the start-up capital was the naming rights to the school, but beyond the name, there is no legal connection.
    As such, Mr. Monaghan is not “with in his rights” to violate the laws of Michigan by forcing AMSL to operate as a sole propriatorship rather than an independent non-profit with a governing board.
    Mr. Monaghan’s illegal and immoral interference with AMSL has caused the law school to fall in GPA, LSAT and bar passage rate stats. It went from a school that was well on its way to tier one status to institutional shambles and an embarassment.
    He has destroyed AMSL causing a flight of top rate professors and students to other schools. The faculty and Alumni have both repeatedly voted no-confidence in Dean Dobranski and Monaghan as Chair of the Board of Govenors but the BOG refused to meet with either and only reaffirm their confidence in both. The vast majority of the BOG have since resigned and run away from the mess they helped to create.
    For the many fine men and women who threw their lot in with the AMSL experiment because they believed in the mission, they have seen the marketability of their degree dive into the mud along with their employment prospects. Monaghan and his resident agent, Dean Dobranski have destroyed the mission of AMSL, destroyed one of the best law schools in the country and have done so to shore up a failing speculative real estate venture to which Monaghan stands to personally profit from.
    Do not misunderstand me. I fully support the reform of education away from the illiberal indoctrination that has its grip on the American university. And I support, in theory, what Mr. Monaghan would like Ave Maria University to be – an orthodox ivy league school. But no cause, no matter how noble, can excuse running people over and treating them like objects to achieve it. To do so puts one in the same company as Stalin with the only difference one of degree.
    Please inform yourself of the facts of this case because your analysis is off base. Monaghan is not the founder of AMSL, he is not the owner of AMSL, and he has forced AMSL’s board to act not in the best interests of AMSL, but in his personal best interest which is akin to stealing except the impact of this theft is massive as it touches hundreds of families.
    For source material see:
    see: http://www.avewatch.org
    fumare.blogspot.com
    whoseamsol.blogspot.com
    As for Ave Maria University, a litany of scandal and abuse exists there as well. When you have a closer look, I can’t imagine you will say that Monaghan is with in his “rights” there either.

  2. The debate over the professors in question here isn’t over whether they’re practicing Catholics. Believe me, I was one of their first students at AMSOL–they were at daily Mass and adhered to the Church proper as far as I could tell.
    The issue here is with the professors holding the school’s feet to the fire on its own adherence to Catholic principles. They’ve cited problems ranging from violations of Catholic labor principles to the school’s own adherence with Ex Corde Ecclesiaste. Monaghan doesn’t like “his” school getting called out, so he’s squelching anyone who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

  3. While I don’t approve of the specific actions in these cases, it is about time to that we see universities reasserting control over their faculty. The days of the inmates running the asylum may be coming to an end, at least for one university.

  4. Placing religious requirements on a faculty is ludicrous. One does not need to be a catholic to be talented in physics, biology, or grammar.

  5. Catholic colleges and universities should insist as a matter of priniciple that all faculty, staff and students be believing, practicing orthodox Roman Catholics. This include Notre Dame, Fordham, Boston College, etc. Faculty, staff and students not willing to affirm orthodoxy should be dismissed from the college.

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