Washington Monthly Details Problems at Ave Maria


Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan is well known for both his business ventures and his far right wing religious views in Michigan, but his attempts to start a religious-based law school didn’t go over well in the Ann Arbor area. He wound up finding an area in Florida which was more hospitable to his plans, as described in The Washington Monthly:

By early 2002, Monaghan had three promising schools—Ave Maria College, St. Mary’s, and Ave Maria School of Law—but they were scattered across Michigan. In the hopes of bringing them together on a single campus, he submitted plans to build a new Ave Maria University at Domino’s Farms. The proposal might have sailed through unnoticed if it weren’t for one detail: a 250-foot crucifix. That’s taller than the old General Motors building and almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The idea touched off a firestorm in Ann Arbor Township, a wealthy rural community with roughly 5,000 residents near the city of Ann Arbor. Many locals still nursed resentments over Monaghan’s previous architectural ventures; years earlier he had tried to build the “Leaning Tower of Pizza,” a thirty-five-story copper-and-bronze-clad tower with a slight eastward slant. A few also grumbled that the onetime pizza baron—who had already opened two convents, a pair of Catholic radio stations, and a Catholic newspaper in the area—was trying to turn the township into a theocracy.

In the end, the local planning commission denied his petition to build the university, and Monaghan was forced to look further afield. He eventually settled on a scraggly stretch of tomato fields bordering southwest Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp. The site was twenty miles inland of Naples, which has a high concentration of Catholics and conservatives, and Monaghan believed they would be friendlier to his vision. And, as luck would have it, Barron Collier Companies, a powerful local landowner, offered to donate some 750 acres on which to build the university. In return, Monaghan agreed to work with Barron Collier to build a planned community around the school, with the profit split down the middle.

What they envisioned was an old-fashioned company town with a theocratic twist. Monaghan and Barron Collier would own everything from the local utility company to the building supply that provided concrete for wells and foundations. But the most startling part of the whole arrangement was the plan for governing the community. In Florida, developers can petition to act as the local government for a number of years while a development is under construction. Monaghan and Barron Collier began pushing the Florida state legislature to pass a law that would allow them to control the local government in perpetuity—and, according to an investigation by the Naples Daily News, they eventually succeeded. While their powers were technically limited when it came to regulating behavior, they clearly intended to keep a tight grip on community life. The original letter of intent between Barron Collier and Monaghan said the town would “allow no public activities which are offensive to traditional Christian values or which might represent a scandal to Catholic and Christian sensibilities. Thus, no topless bars, abortion clinics, ‘adult’ bookstores or the like shall be permitted.”

It initially appeared that Ave Maria would be a success for the right wing but now is in serious trouble. Steve Benen summarizes:

Until a few years ago, the Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution founded by billionaire pizza mogul Tom Monaghan, seemed poised to become a top-drawer institution. It was created with the help of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and other prominent conservatives, which gave it credibility in major political circles. Its graduates had an astonishing 100 percent bar passage rate, and many went on to high-powered jobs and prestigious clerkships.

Today it’s among the worst law schools in the country, if not the very worst, and appears to be on the verge of financial collapse.

The reasons for the decline have mostly to do with Monaghan’s hunger for power. He attempted to run the law school and his other education ventures like pizza franchises, opening and closing campuses with little regard for students and faculty, and systematically cracking down on those who questioned his decisions. One devout Catholic professor who voiced oppositions to Monaghan’s plans had his tenure revoked (and his career ruined) based largely on trumped up charges that he sexually abused a coworker.

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