How an Eccentric Right-Wing Pizza Billionaire's Attempt to Build Catholic Law School Ended in Disaster
In the fall of 1998, Steve Safranek, a devout Catholic professor, found himself at a crossroads. For nearly a decade, he had been teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, a small Catholic enclave in the heart of the rust belt, and, like many institutions in the region, it was undergoing wrenching change. Enrollment had taken such a tumble that administrators were considering cutting a third of the faculty, and there was growing anxiety among conservative professors, who felt the school was drifting from its traditional Catholic roots. The turmoil only deepened that September when a pro-choice Michigan Supreme Court justice was invited to give the oath at the annual Red Mass, a centuries-old ceremony where Catholic lawyers, judges, and politicians ask God’s blessing and guidance in their daily work. Some faculty and staff turned out with picket signs; others, like Safranek, simply chose not to attend. This touched off a bitter dispute with the administration.
Around this time, Safranek decided he would pray every day for fifty-four days straight to St. Thomas More, the Renaissance lawyer and statesman who coined the word “utopia.” As he 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 was intrigued. In early December, he invited Safranek and the others to Domino’s Farm, a half-mile-long office complex with numerous quirky amenities— among them a herd of buffalo and a petting zoo—which he had built in Ann Arbor Township. The group met in a small, sparsely furnished room, where they discussed their ideas for the new venture. “There was some talk about Catholic law schools, generally; most American ones were started as technical professional entities to keep graduates of Catholic colleges around for three more years,” Safranek recalls. “We wanted to build something different—a school where traditional Catholic values and thought were built into every part of the curriculum.” At the same time, Safranek and company wanted to avoid the trap that many new schools fall into; because they’re strapped for cash, they end up with scantly stocked libraries, second-rate faculty, and middling students. Their aim was to build a world-class institution, one that would churn out lawyers capable of leaving their stamp on the larger culture.
Once the professors were done speaking, Monaghan went around the table and asked them one by one if he could count on their commitment. They all said he could. Monaghan then promised to throw his financial might behind the project—while he didn’t settle on a specific dollar figure, the numbers he batted around were in the tens of millions. Finally, the group retreated to Monaghan’s office, a two-story suite with raw-silk ceilings and leather floors, for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Through the window, they could see buffalo grazing and a light snow falling on the brown hills.
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.