The Abridged Ave Maria Story
It's a story that may be more fitting of a film entitled A Monaghan for All Seasons.
The early 90s dawned, and Domino's Pizza founder and billionaire Tom Monaghan had a Paulean revelation about free-spending materialism. “I realized I was a showoff. I wanted not just more, I wanted more than others. What I thought were virtues were really not.” Monaghan sold the Detroit Tigers, a rich man's toy he had bought stocked with World Series talent and sold right before a decade-long dumpster fire of baseball futility. He stopped collecting classic cars and even stopped work on his latest Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building.
Monaghan - a genuine, devout Roman Catholic by all counts - turned to education, vowing to give away his fortune to assist his charitable ends. To better understand his pious aims, we must first understand that he had, and has, a problem with contemporary Catholic education. Places like Georgetown, Loyola, Seton Hall, St. Johns, DePaul, Marquette, Boston College - for many devout Roman Catholics, these schools may as well be secular. (And here and here)
A few truly devout schools fought against the tide of liberalism and secularization. Catholic University of America was and is one example, not to mention a smattering of liberal arts colleges that upheld the strictest Catholic virtues. Nonetheless, Monaghan joined the mini-schism in Catholic education and sought to augment the presence of traditionalism in academia, concurrent with a broad expansion of undergraduate enrollment nationwide. He started the Ave Maria Foundation to fund various endeavors.
Ultimately, his goal became to build a world-class, devoutly Catholic, elite university.
Monaghan was, or became, a benefactor of Franciscan College of Steubenville (Ohio), one of the handful of colleges with an approvingly orthodox bent. He initially pushed for a law school there. But, according to the New Yorker article cited above, Franciscan lacked the ambition to become a big, elite research institution, as did another small college. His university wouldn't be a modest priest. It would be a Cardinal.
Monaghan founded his own college, Ave Maria, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1998, and then appears to have purchased a local college called St. Mary's when he ran into accreditation issues. But as any good academic knows, a liberal arts college is just one piece of the elite university puzzle. As coincident fortune would have it, nearby, Professor Steven Safranek and three of his peers sought a more Catholic school than Detroit-Mercy.
As [Safranek] recited his Hail Marys, an idea began to percolate: Why not start a new Catholic law school? A few weeks later, Safranek caught word that Tom Monaghan, the eccentric billionaire who founded Domino’s Pizza, had sold his business and was planning to devote his fortune to conservative Catholic causes. So he hashed out a proposal and got four other University of Detroit Mercy professors and an administrator to sign on. To show they were serious, each of them offered to chip in $20,000 and work for free for a year.Monaghan bought into it, and quite literally. Ave Maria Law School was born, amidst a new wave of pure Catholic institutions and the latest piece to Monaghan's elite university puzzle.
Safranek and friends moved to Ann Arbor. Nino Scalia and other conservatives gave positive feedback. Applicants showed interest. In 2000, with significant scholarship support, Ave Maria Law School enrolled seventy-five students with generally good admissions criteria. Bar pass rates in 2003 and 2004 rivaled the University of Michigan's. Almost a decade before Irvine, Ave Maria had the first phase of a vanity law school down pat.
But not all was well in this academic paradise.
Monaghan still wanted a big, elite university in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As the New Yorker explains, the local community lacked his prescience and imagination:
Monaghan hoped to move the college and the law school to the vast grounds at Domino’s Farms, an action that had to be approved by the Ann Arbor township. Approval was hardly a given; some of his earlier projects, such as a subdivision featuring homes designed by the thirty best architects in the world (chosen by a panel), had been stalled by the town. Now there was much local grumbling about a plan to erect a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot-tall crucifix, bearing a forty-foot-tall Jesus, at the site of his proposed university. In April, 2002, the town denied Monaghan permission to build his university in Ann Arbor.Significantly butthurt about Ann Arbor rejecting his twenty-five story monument to the ultimate act of pro bono publico, Monaghan sought to move his project (or, rather, His project) to sunnier locales.
He found Naples, Florida: a vacation spot heavy on local conservative Catholicism and light on local elite university competition. After all, Monaghan's university was not going to compete with Miami and Stetson. It was going to compete with Duke.
In Naples, he would construct his modern-day Ark, of sorts: "an old-fashioned company town with a theocratic twist."
Unfortunately, those of lesser faith scoffed at suddenly moving across the country. Professor Safranek, once his ally in the fight against heterodoxy, suddenly became a Luther-like foe.
Safranek...complained to the American Bar Association that Monaghan wasn't acting in the school's best interests by relocating....Students and faculty at Ave Maria College likewise protested; that college was quietly closed in 2007. Moreover, faculty at Ave Maria Law were frustrated not only at the pending exodus, but also at Monaghan's control over the school. According to the New Yorker article, he had instituted a dress code for faculty.
The professor led a September 2006 faculty revolt against the move — and was quickly fired. Then, like Ernsting, he sued. "We had done everything right. We were poised to be one of the best law schools in the country," Safranek says. "But Monaghan's greed, his desire to say, 'Look what I'm going to do; I'm going to create this university in the middle of nowhere,' ruined it all."
Charlie Rice, a founding board member of Ave Maria law school and then a constitutional law professor at both Notre Dame and Ave Maria, agrees. "Monaghan just wanted to get rid of people who were not favorable to the move. He treated those guys outrageously. It was unconscionable."
As it turned out, his money was not given freely with the spirit of beneficence; his purse came with strings, and they were sinners in the hands of a despotic puppeteer.
Lawsuits would be filed and settled. The American Bar Association gave its papal acquiescence. Ave Maria Law was founded in 2000, accredited in 2005, and, like one called to go on a mission in the tropics, transported itself to a new jurisdiction in 2007.
In the ultimate act of vanity befitting a billionaire businessman, Monaghan had co-opted someone else's faith-based vanity project as part of his own faith-based vanity project and turned the commandment dial to 11.
In Florida, Monaghan found a deal that was too good to be true. A company called Barron Collier entered into a joint venture with Monaghan where they would build the planned community of Ave Maria, Florida, around the university in some swampy tomato fields near Naples and split the profits down the middle.
But Monaghan needed a way to exercise control over his company town against pesky things like democracy. He discovered good old fashioned legislative exceptions and theocratic feudalism.
The law gives Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos. more power than any Florida developer in at least 24 years, power perhaps not seen since the days of the early 20th century land boom. The law makes landowners, not registered voters, the ultimate authority in Ave Maria. The law ensures Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., as the largest landowners, can control Ave Maria's government forever.What could possibly go wrong with this utopia?
Sure, contraceptives and pornography are banned even for non-Catholic residents. Sure, words like "fascist", "edicts", and "nightmare" get thrown around when discussing the town. But Monaghan has built his dream, of which a law school pumping out Catholic-infused lawyers ("every 1L is sacred"?) appears to be an integral part.
For as much as we criticize Erwin Chemerinsky for the vanity project of UC-Irvine, he didn't move the school and build a new university-town combo over which he could remain overlord. Before there was Chemerinsky, there was Monaghan, and Ave Maria, the vanity project on ecclesiastical acid.