Sunday, April 19, 2015

Vanity Rephrased, Part One: Tom Monaghan and Ave Maria Law

This is part one of two entries discussing Ave Maria Law School.  In part two, we will look at some recent news regarding the college and look more at the school's financial picture.

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....

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."
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.

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.


  1. This guy is a nutjob. He tried to build his own town without access to birth control, which last time I checked is a violation of Constitutional rights for all Americans. As an Italian-American, I'm mostly offended by the sale of incredibly low-quality pizza, however.

    1. BAM!!

      I stopped eating Domino's years back because I always, always - ALWAYS - got sick afterwards. And here's why: When you look at the pizza box bottom, it's dripping with grease. Butter, garlic, and oil, etc.

      That isn't a good pizza. It's crap. It's the equivalent of Fast Food-style pizza. All cheap ingredients thrown in to provide a certain taste without any quality. Pizza is actually very healthy as a food - unless, of course, it's Domino's.

      As far as this school, I gave up on organized religion because they're all wannabe Joel Osteens. All the churches want is your money. I remember a friend telling me about how when his Dad was out of work in the Depression he went to the church and asked for a little food. They turned him away.

      I'm not anti-religion or anti-God. But as I said, I'm anti-organized religion now. I'm the same with education, actually, thanks largely to my experiences with law school. Education need not be formal. Homeschooling would, or should, be better. No more trusting the gov't to propagandize (or "educate") and indoctrinate the kids.

      People and parents need to take responsibility. College is the start of it all, offering hugely expensive 4-year degrees which are Tickets to Nowhere in the modern economy. Not smart at all. The only Winners are the overpaid and under-worked educators. And the employers looking for more Debt-Serfs to use and burn out in the corporate world.

    2. Some of those god-bothering rules are probably unenforceable. Look at the case law on company towns.

      And I don't eat their pizza either. The sauce is made sweet to pander to low-grade tastes. And, yes, the pizza contains enough grease to choke a walrus. Besides, I avoid companies that promote religion and retrograde political positions.

      Look up Joe Hill's song "The Preacher and the Slave".

    3. I disagree with the "all churches want is your money." Certainly some are like that, and especially many "prosperity gospel" Joel Osteen type groups, but not all. I have had missionaries ask me to stop giving them money because they did not trust my motives (and they were right). My current church does not pressure the congregation to give at all, theres no collection, and the pastor told us not to give if we think we are buying God's favor. I give out of a willing heart, just as the Bible says. God has given me far more than I have ever given any church or missionary.

      Churches are a corpus permixtum, and there are good and bad.

  2. The median LSAT score for the entering class at Ave Maria last fall was a 143 and the 25th percentile number was an apocalyptic 139. God help these suckers when the bill comes due for their foolishness.

  3. Maybe now that UC Irvine is accredited, Chemerinsky can move the school to some place that really needs another law school. Like...hmmmm...I give up.

    1. I'm shocked that the US Virgin Islands haven't sprouted a law school yet.

    2. American Samoa needs an ABA accredited law school.

  4. It appears Ave Maria Law is going down.

    1) It showed up as the only law school on the Dept. of Ed's recent release of schools on "cash monitoring," for financial instability - i.e. DOE has to approve and monitor ever federal dollar released to Ave Maria.

    2) The DOE has a little-known consumer tool to tell prospective students if the school they are attending is solvent. It's called the "Financial Responsibility Composite Score."

    From the feds: "The composite score reflects the overall relative financial health of institutions along a scale from negative 1.0 to positive 3.0. A score greater than or equal to 1.5 indicates the institution is considered financially responsible."

    Ave Maria's Composite Score for 2014 is -0.5.

    Links if you're interested:

  5. 1 Cor. 6:

    7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.

    1 Timothy 6:10

    For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

    But no, clearly Monaghan, Safranek, et al WILL HAVE their faith-based institution, and their no-work jobs, and all the attendant "glory" that goes with it, no matter what the cost or the carnage to others.

  6. I would prefer attending a law school affiliated with Legal Sea Foods than Domino's.

  7. Hail Maria, full of pizza.
    The law is with thee.
    Blasted art thou among scam schools,
    and blasted are the crumbs in thy box,

  8. Not for nothing but everytime I have ever eaten Dominos pizza, I get the runs. It is a foul tasting pizza and it is a real insult to Italians to call Dominos pizza real "pizza." If Ave Maria is anything like the Dominos pizza of law schools, then enrolling kids should run for the hills and avoid this cesspool.

  9. Monaghan had one chance to start a good law school, and he did. It was accredited, attracted a decent student body, and was cranking out Catholic social teaching like you wouldn't believe. But then he decided to shut it down because of some grandiose vision of a Catholic town with a world-class Catholic university. None of which is anywhere near happening.

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  11. I'm not Catholic, but I'm a bit surprised at the Catholic-bashing. Well, not really.

    Ave Maria Law School is certainly guilty of overcharging its students. If it really wanted to train great Catholic super-lawyers, they should probably start with very low tuition to attract higher quality applicants. Next they should shrink the class size. Wash rinse repeat for 20 years till you have a good reputation.

    But unfortunately AMLS went the route of all law schools and charged pretty much the maximum possible, which damages the lives of its students, the very future "leaders" the founder wanted to raise up.

    Where is the principled law school, that cares about its students so much it charges them the lowest possible tuition? That would be the truly idealistic law school.

    PS - as for the Dominos Pizza guy's putative Catholic town, why does this attract immense criticism and lawsuits? Where are the ACLU harassment and lawsuits for non-Catholic or non-Christian religiously organized communities:,_Iowa
    Islamville, Tennessee -
    Medinah Village -
    Aliville, GA -
    Ahmadaba West, VA -,_South_Carolina,_New_York
    (Indeed, rather than being sued, the Muslims of America group that controls Islamberg sued critics who published a book about it.)

    But hey we all know by now:
    Catholic or Christian community = evil, suspicious, cannot be permitted
    Islamic community = diversity, wonderful, multiculturalism, criticism = Islamophobia

    PPS - I do not wish for Muslim or whatever communities in America to be sued or attacked or harassed. If its isolated, peaceful, and even all-volunteer who cares really? I merely say all this to illustrate the curious double standard. Domino's Pizza guy's plans got stopped, but the Islamberg guy is still building new colonies.