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How an Eccentric Right-Wing Pizza Billionaire's Attempt to Build Catholic Law School Ended in Disaster

Tom Monaghan, Domino's Pizza founder, took advice from God and Antonin Scalia on the creation of of a Catholic Law school in Florida. It hasn't gone very well.

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Even during his prodigal years, Monaghan never lost sight of his Catholic roots. And beginning in the mid-1980s, he started delving more deeply into his faith, and embracing conservative Catholic causes. Then, in 1989, at the suggestion of a Catholic scholar friend, he read a passage from the C. S. Lewis classic Mere Christianity that railed against pride as “the essential vice, the utmost evil.” It dawned on Monaghan that his hunger for success and flashy belongings was pride in its purest form. He immediately swore what he called a “millionaire’s vow of poverty” and began shedding his possessions. Finally, in 1998, he sold Domino’s for an estimated $1 billion and announced that he was retiring from the pizza business so he could devote his time and money to Catholic education. “I want to die broke,” he declared.

It was later that year that Safranek and the other professors approached Monaghan with their idea for the Catholic law school. Their timing couldn’t have been better; Monaghan was already busy piecing together his educational empire. His first act had been to found Ave Maria College, a Catholic school in Ypsilanti. But he had trouble getting accreditation for the stand-alone venture, so he struck a deal to take over St. Mary’s College, a 120-year-old Catholic school in nearby Orchard Lake Village. In exchange for its accreditation charter, he would give the struggling institution the cash it needed to thrive—among other things, Monaghan planned to beef up the faculty and build a division-one football team. (Or, as St. Mary’s then President Thaddeus Radzilowski recalls, “He wanted a school that produced three-hundred-pound tackles who were also theology majors.”)

Shortly after their seminal meeting with Monaghan, Safranek and the others negotiated buyouts from the University of Detroit Mercy, packed up their belongings, and moved to Ann Arbor. For most, this move came with some sacrifices. Safranek gave up tenure and a seat on the city council, and sold the home he had just bought for his wife and seven children, a brick abode with a vegetable garden near Lake Sinclair. But they were too wrapped up in their new venture to have regrets.

The professors set up shop in a bank of cubicles at Domino’s Farms, which housed, among other things, the headquarters of Domino’s Pizza. From there, they began putting together the curriculum and recruiting professors. Dobranski eventually drew up a list of thirty-six luminaries of Catholic legal education (he called them his “dream team”) and began contacting them with a personal invitation to join the faculty. Before long, inquiries from prospective students were pouring in. In the fall of 2000, when Ave Maria School of Law opened the doors to its new campus—an 85,000-square-foot Frank Lloyd Wright–style building in northeast Ann Arbor—it had seventy-five students, almost double the initial projections. Their bona fides, namely LSAT scores, were on par with students at many top-tier law schools. Suddenly, Monaghan—a college dropout who had made his fortune delivering pizzas to dorm rooms—was in the inner circle of what was shaping up to be an elite academic club.

From the beginning, Monaghan insisted he wouldn’t meddle in the law school’s daily operations. As he put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education , “When I owned the Detroit Tigers, I didn’t climb into the dugout and tell Sparky how to set his lineup.” But behind the scenes, he was quietly amassing control. Monaghan appointed himself chairman of the board. According to deposition testimony that Monaghan and his deputies later gave, Dean Dobranski was also given an employment contract with Monaghan’s private foundation rather than with Ave Maria law school. This meant the dean answered directly to Monaghan and not the board of governors, which was supposed to be in charge. Dobranski was also obligated to send the former pizza mogul daily writeups of his activities, to which Monaghan would reply with detailed instructions. What’s more, money for both the law school and the colleges was doled out in dribs and drabs, which allowed Monaghan to keep a tight rein on their operations. (St. Mary’s administrators, for instance, recall pleading with Monaghan’s foundation for $75 to pay the referees at a baseball game.) None of this really mattered as long as he and the faculty were driving toward the same vision. It was only when Monaghan hit on his next grand scheme that things began to unravel.

 
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