The NYT takes a hard look at Monaghan and Ave Maria Florida
As full disclosure, I graduated from Ave Maria College in Michigan and know personally almost everyone who is quoted in this article. Edward Peters is my father, and I am his son that is mentioned in the article. In my opinion, this story gets most of the major points right. I realize that this is a very heated topic, but I think it is important to get the facts straight.
Our Lady of Discord
by Susan Hansen, July 30 2006
Since netting about $1 billion from the 1998 sale of Domino’s to Bain Capital, Mr. Monaghan, 69, has become one of the leading philanthropists in the country and the biggest benefactor of conservative Catholic institutions.
In the past eight years, his Ave Maria Foundation, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has donated $140 million to promote conservative Catholic education, media and other organizations, including Detroit-area parochial grade schools, a law school and small regional colleges in Michigan and Nicaragua, along with radio stations and a fellowship group for Catholic business leaders.
His boldest charitable venture by far, however, is Ave Maria University, a four-year liberal arts campus under construction 30 miles northeast of Naples, Fla., to which Mr. Monaghan has donated or pledged $285 million so far. Along with the university, which enrolled its first students three years ago on a temporary campus, he and a local developer are building an adjoining new town called Ave Maria.
Yet as he aims for the divine, Mr. Monaghan has been facing some unexpected earthly trials, including a revolt at his law school in Ann Arbor and sharp criticism by many of the conservative Catholics who once supported his foundation’s projects.
In many ways, Mr. Monaghan’s troubles illustrate how difficult it can be for wealthy, driven entrepreneurs to make the transition to full-time philanthropy, particularly when they have single-minded ideas about how they want their money spent. Traits that make successful business leaders — ego, ambition, determination, even a touch of imperiousness — do not necessarily go over well in charitable work, causing even the most well-intentioned projects to founder.
As he tries to build a new university and town in his own image, Mr. Monaghan has been experiencing some of those difficulties firsthand. Faculty members, students and parents tied to his Detroit-area schools have complained that he runs his charitable foundation like a sole proprietorship, starting and abandoning projects as whim strikes him. And they characterize his new Florida university as a vanity venture that could well prove to be a colossal waste of cash.
“It all belongs to Tom Monaghan; that’s the problem,” said Therese M. Bower of Cincinnati, whose son attended Ave Maria College, one of the schools Mr. Monaghan founded in Michigan. His foundation moved to close the school’s Ypsilanti campus to focus on building his university in Florida.
“If Tom were a real philanthropist,” said Jay W. McNally, the former director of communications and advancement at the college, “he would donate his money and step off.” Mr. McNally said the school let him go after he told federal officials that some financial aid for students in Michigan had been diverted to Florida; Ave Maria University later returned $259,000 in federal money.Mr. Monaghan’s many defenders, including Bowie K. Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner, and Michael Novak, a Catholic theologian, dismissed much of the criticism as carping by academics. “If it weren’t Monaghan, it would be dissatisfaction with whomever,” says Mr. Novak, an Ave Maria University trustee.
Many Detroit-area Catholics said they gave up jobs and teaching posts elsewhere to work at the schools, with some faculty members moving from hundreds of miles away because, as a former Ave Maria College biology professor, Andrew J. Messaros, recalled, they were committed to promoting a faithful version of core Catholic teachings.
“I bought into the whole vision lock, stock and barrel,” Professor Messaros said. He added that he took a $16,000 pay cut from a tenure-track position at the West Virginia University School of Medicine to teach at Ave Maria in mid-2003.
While Mr. Healy was opening the Florida university, financing for Mr. Monaghan’s projects in Michigan began to disappear. In late 2002, the foundation said it would no longer support St. Mary’s. An expected shutdown of the school was averted only when another Catholic institution, Madonna University in nearby Livonia, Mich., agreed to take it over.
In Ypsilanti, the news that Ave Maria College would be merged into the new university in Florida went down a little easier — at least initially — given that Mr. Monaghan pledged to keep the Michigan campus open until 2007, so that the school’s 230 students could stay and finish their degrees.
Despite that assurance, however, Professor Messaros said that by the fall of 2003 school officials were pressuring him and other faculty members to move to Florida quickly — or risk losing their jobs. “Their attitude was, ‘This is what we’re going to do. Take it or leave it,’ ” he said.
Mrs. Bower, whose son Paul was a junior at Ave Maria College when the move to Florida began to accelerate, said she became concerned that the Michigan campus was being deserted. She grew more anxious in 2004 when word got out that school administrators in Florida had tried to have most of the books at the Michigan campus’s library shipped to Naples.
“I thought, ‘Wait! There are still students there. They can’t just take all the stuff,’ ” said Mrs. Bower, who created a Web site — geocities.com/aveparents — to help keep the Michigan campus intact.
Another parent — Edward N. Peters, who taught canon law in a theology program now based at Ave Maria University — threatened to sue if the campus was dismantled.
“It has become clear that Tom Monaghan regards Ave Maria not as a kind of public trust but rather as his personal domain which he can effectively treat however he wants,” Professor Peters, whose son attended the college, wrote in a June 2004 letter to the college board. He added that since Mr. Monaghan shifted his attention to Florida, he had cut support for several of his Michigan projects, including a weekly Catholic newspaper and a new convent. “Ironically, the very legacy that was being built up with Monaghan’s help is now being torn down at his will,” Professor Peters wrote. “It is a tragic and scandalous waste of the human and financial resources given by God.”
In late 2004, Father Neil J. Roy, Ave Maria College’s academic dean, actually did sue Mr. Monaghan and the school’s trustees in a bid to stall the Michigan campus’s closure, but a state court judge dismissed the suit last September. The exodus of faculty and students to Florida and elsewhere continued, and last year school officials began making cash buyout offers to the 30 or so students who had planned to continue studies on the Ypsilanti campus in 2007.
For a while, the Ave Maria School of Law seemed immune to the strife. Its enrollment, now about 380, was growing, and the American Bar Association had granted it full accreditation. But Mr. Monaghan wants to relocate that school to Florida, too, upsetting teachers, students and alumni. Opponents say it is crazy to leave an intellectual center like Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, for an undeveloped outpost on the edge of the Everglades.
He and others who are fighting the move said the only reason the school’s board was even considering it was that Mr. Monaghan, the chairman, had invested more than $330 million in the Florida university and town and wanted the law school there to shore up that investment.
One veteran board member — Charles E. Rice, an emeritus professor of law at Notre Dame University — tried to make the case against the move. But he said that Mr. Monaghan and other board members, including the law school’s dean, Bernard Dobranski, “did not want a contrary voice,” so last fall they adopted term-limit bylaws and ejected him from the board.
Faculty members, students and alumni rallied around Professor Rice, however, and since last fall they have mounted a campaign that has included pointed attacks against Mr. Monaghan and resolutions calling on Dean Dobranski to resign.
“The bigger issue is school governance,” said Jason B. Negri, president of the law school’s alumni association. Specifically, he criticized Mr. Monaghan’s insistence on operating the school like a private business and what he said was the board’s failure to stand up to him.
Not that the process has been easy — or cheap. Mr. Healy said damage from hurricanes last year and the year before, along with strong demand for raw materials in China has sent labor, cement and steel prices soaring — nearly doubling building costs and eating up Mr. Monaghan’s money faster than expected. Indeed, in the next year, Mr. Roney said, the Ave Maria Foundation’s assets might drop to as little as $15 million from $251 million in 1999.
Kate Cousino, the 2004 salutatorian of Ave Maria College, said she would not be writing any checks. In fact, she said that she and other Ave Maria graduates recently started an alternative alumni group because they didn’t want fund-raisers for the Florida campus asking them for donations.
She and other critics of Mr. Monaghan say that other like-minded Catholics will hesitate to hand over money now that, at least in conservative Catholic circles, word of his troubles has gotten out. “I think he’s really turned off a lot of his target market,” said Terrence L. McKeegan, an Ave Maria law school graduate.
Professor Messaros called the millions that Mr. Monaghan has spent “mind-numbing.” His fortune could have been spent helping the poor or assisting established universities or on any number of better causes, instead of on building what he called “a ‘Citizen Kane’ monument to waste,” Professor Messaros added.
Ave Maria School of Law is fighting for its continued existence in Michigan right now, and I've been a witness to the shutting down of numerous other Monaghan-funded Catholic institutions over the past years. It hasn't been pretty. Based on these and other experiences, I'm frankly fairly pessimistic about what the future holds for Ave Maria University in Florida. Needless to say, I pray that God's will be done among all associated with the venture.