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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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Gradually, details of the conflict and the looming move leaked out, and it had a toxic effect on the school. By 2005, the quality of applicants was dropping, and the most promising students were transferring out by the dozen. To keep the student body from collapsing, administrators had to give out ever-larger scholarships. This had the perverse effect of making the school, which was supposed to be financially independent by 2010, even more dependent on Monaghan. Despite the turmoil, in August 2005 the ABA granted Ave Maria law school final accreditation, meaning it could begin openly pursuing the move to Florida. The following month, the board voted to impose term limits, a move many students and faculty saw as a ploy to push Rice out.

Rice’s ouster, combined with a poor showing in the U.S. News & World Report rankings several months later, heightened the sense among faculty and students that Monaghan and the administration would stop at nothing to push through the move to Florida, even if it meant destroying the school. What started as rumbling discontent burgeoned into full-scale revolt. In mid-2006, the faculty held a vote of no confidence in the dean, and roughly two-thirds voted in favor. Alumni and students followed suit, with their own no-confidence vote and, later, a call for Monaghan’s removal as chairman of the board. But the uproar made little difference. The following February, the board voted overwhelmingly to move the law school to Florida.

Meanwhile, the administration began cracking down on agitators. “Monaghan wanted no dissent, so the screws began to get turned,” says Safranek. No one was targeted more aggressively than the former University of Detroit Mercy professor. Safranek, who was among the most outspoken in his criticism of the school’s management, was repeatedly disciplined, often for seemingly trumped-up offenses. At one point, he received a letter saying he had been found guilty of “uninvited” touching of “the person of one of the Law School staff employees,” an accusation that smacked of sexual impropriety. What actually happened only became clear much later, when the contents of Safranek’s employee file—including a written statement from the alleged victim—were released as the result of a lawsuit: Safranek had walked by the dean’s secretary while she was shuffling through the trunk of her car in the law school parking lot, tapped her on the arm, and said, “Good morning, Sarah.”

Based on these and other allegations, Safranek had his tenure revoked in July 2007. Since that time, he’s been hunting, without success, for another faculty position. By now he’s lost hope of ever working in academia again. “I try not to have regrets,” he says. “But for twenty years, teaching was my life. Sometimes I have the feeling that everything I’ve done has been for naught.” (Administrators declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Safranek’s departure because he has a suit pending against the school. “Our policy is not to comment on matters before the court,” Dean Eugene Milhizer wrote in an e-mail.)

Since 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 straits. “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.”

 
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