The Rise and Fall of Ave Maria

Mariah Blake has a great article in The Washington Monthly about Domino’s Pizza founder and Catholic hardliner Tom Monaghan and the disastrous collapse of his Catholic university empire.

You’ll have to read the article to get all the necessary background, but here is an explanation of what happened as a result of Monaghan’s heavy-handedness and effort to move the law school, which had been very successful while located in Michigan, to Florida as part of the planned right-wing utopia he was trying to build:

Since [Steve] Safranek’s ouster, the law school has been in a freefall. Most of the original faculty have fled or been pushed out, and the quality of the students has tumbled. One current professor told me, “Our student body now is one of the four or five worst in America.” The instability has also wreaked havoc on the school’s reputation: in the 2009 U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, Ave Maria tied for last place in the peer-assessment category, the most important measure in determining a school’s standing. (The school was not officially ranked because U.S. News doesn’t rank schools that land in the bottom tier.) Meanwhile, there are signs that Monaghan’s foundation, which funds the law school and the university, is on the verge of running out of money, in part because Monaghan bet his fortune—and the future of his nonprofits—on the now-crumbling Florida real estate market. Earlier this year, Ave Maria University’s second-longest-standing professor resigned, but not before sending a letter to administrators expressing his alarm at the school’s financial straights. “I fear that all of us (to different degrees) are participating in something that we may later deeply regret,” he wrote, “namely selling to young people and their families [an] educational product that we do not have sufficient reason to believe can be delivered.”

Meanwhile, in June, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Ave Maria School of Law had failed its financial responsibility test, the only law school in the nation to do so. Even more troubling, the school ranked sixth to last among all American institutions of higher learning on the department’s financial responsibility index, thanks partly to its multimillion-dollar deficit. With its finances in disarray, the school has shelved plans for the $50 million building across from Mansion Row. When Ave Maria School of Law finally opened for business in Florida this August, it was in a former retirement home on the outskirts of Naples.

The beginning of the article recounts this interesting anecdote about how Ave Maria Law School got off the ground and established itself as an educational force to be reckoned with:

After the meeting, Monaghan approached Bernard Dobranski, the dean of the law school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and asked him to head up the new venture, known as Ave Maria School of Law. It was a risky proposition for a seasoned academic— giving up tenure, a generous salary, and the promise of long sabbaticals to take part in a startup venture. But the idea piqued Dobranski’s interest. The following day, he asked his friend, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to lunch and sought his advice. Scalia pressed him to take the job. The conservative justice was later flown out on Monaghan’s private jet to consult on the curriculum. Scalia was so enthusiastic about the project that he also persuaded his friend Robert Bork, the erstwhile conservative Supreme Court nominee, to join the faculty. Before long other prominent conservatives were lining up behind the project. They were so enamored with the idea, and the money Monaghan was willing to put behind it, that no one seemed to give much thought to the implications of a fast-food mogul wading into the world of higher ed.

As they say, read the whole thing.