College Guide


August 20, 2009 12:18 PM Pie in the Sky

What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.

By Mariah Blake

Deliverance: Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan at Ave Maria University.

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.

Tom Monaghan was born in 1937 on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father, a truck driver, died when he was just four years old, and his mother was unable to support him and his younger brother on the $27.50 a week she earned as a maid. The boys spent a couple years bouncing between foster homes before landing at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, a Catholic orphanage in Jackson, Michigan. It was a harsh existence. When they weren’t saying their rosaries, the boys spent hours on end ironing and scrubbing floors. Punishment was doled out with a strap, often wielded by the feared Sister Ladislaus.

Mariah Blake is an editor of the Washington Monthly.


  • Art Zartesky on September 02, 2009 10:27 AM:

    There needs to be an investigation of whether Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation should still qualify as a tax exempt non-profit. Testimony shows Monaghan and his CFO admitting that the Foundation centrally coordinates the law school and the university "for the good of the Foundation". A 501(c)3 is supposed to be autonomous and not serve the interests of another non-profit tied to the same influential donor. This is a big fish for the IRS.

    Also, it seems to be fundamentally wrong to manipulate multiple non-profits to pork-up a entire company town of for-profit businesses, as is the case with Monaghan's real estate and business holdings in Ave Maria Town, FL.

  • Reader 2 on September 02, 2009 1:53 PM:

    The Cliff Notes version of this saga:

    1. Several law professors were at odds with the administration at Detroit Mercy and therefore felt a lack of job security due to pending department cuts.

    2. They asked a fast-food magnate widely known to be a wealthy domineering micro-manager to fund a common dream, Ave Maria School of Law, to the tune of $50 million.

    3. Despite the magnate spending even more than the promised $50 million on the school, the dissident law professors now snobbishly decry that this benefactor is a wealthy domineering micro-managing fast-food magnate, and resent the fact that this benefactor did not stand on the sidelines and act as if he were a disinterested party.

    4. These dissident professors - once again - found themselves at odds with the school administration, and so they did all they could to raise a ruckus and thwart its goals.

    5. These dissident professors failed to thwart anything.

    6. These dissidents continue to whine to the media and anyone else who will lsiten.


    This year's entering class is the first to enter since the ABA approved the school's move to Florida, putting to bed the scare-mongering about the school's "uncertain future" that dissident faculty shamefully promoted at the expense of their virtue.

    The law school enrolled 205 new 1L students this year and had to turn away many who were offered conditional admission on a space-available basis. This while at the same time achieving its lowest-ever discount rate (the percentage of tuition assistance provided), and inproving the objective student quality.

    Two of the founding faculty - both outspoken dissidents - apparently did not obtain work elsewhere and have relocated to Florida to teach at the school, despite the dissident talking points that the school is now pathetic. One has to ask if these two faculty are of such low quality that they cannot obtain new positions, and if they simply "sold out" to the billionaire and moved to Florida for the money, despite what the dissidents have consistently painted as an evil geographical re-location forced on all by the evil acts of a reckless administration.

    The dissidents decided that they did not have enough control over the school, so they did all they could to thwart its progress while begging any media outlet available to hawk their "poor little me" propaganda. They have failed to halt the move to Florida and now they have thrown a bone to Miss Blake to re-tell - yet again - their stale story.

  • KansasVoter on September 02, 2009 5:47 PM:

    This is just more proof that religious people are idiots and that all religions need to be done away with.

  • Tell It Like It Is on September 02, 2009 6:24 PM:

    Reader 2 is one of Monaghan's paid "PR" firms to hack against other people.

    The real story:

    Ave Maria Law has one of the worst student bodies in America.

    Ave Maria Law has one of the worst faculties in America.

    Ave Maria Law is one of the worst law schools in America.

    Monaghan promised he would do whatever it took to make it a "top tier" school.

    The careers of hundreds of students are now tied to a law school of the lowest rank.

    Monaghan and the Board that allowed this are to blame.

    It is not about geography. It never was.

    In typical Ave Maria speak those who tried to ensure that the School kept its promises and representations to the students are termed "dissidents." In America, we call those people Patriots.

  • Kate on September 02, 2009 6:26 PM:

    Looks like we have at least one visitor from the Foundation here. :-D

  • K. Beringer on September 02, 2009 7:53 PM:

    It is laughable to see the fixation that "Reader 2" has on use of the term "dissident," as if it is a pejorative descriptor. Since when are law school professors not free-thinking when it comes to governance? Of course these professionals are going to get upset if their school's Chairman of the Board - who also acts as the primary donor - threatens to shutdown operations unless the institution moves to his for-profit start-up real estate development in the south Florida swamps.

    The naiveté here is with Monaghan, not the founding professors! He actually thought that a group of lawyer-academics could be herded like lemmings instead of cats?

    Let's see what happens with Safranek's law suit, Reader2.

  • Gentleman Johnnie on September 03, 2009 1:28 AM:

    Oh Good. Another great article has lead to another tiring debate about the law school. For anyone who likes to read these comments but has no idea of the factions surrounding this rather small school in the middle of nowhere, here's a list..

    1.-Pro School. Usually pro move, sometimes pro-monahan. This side will argue that the move made sense now, that Monahan pumped a ton of money into the school, that the lawschool isn't As bad as the former professors made it out to be. Pro-school debaters will frequently act more outraged and agrieved than they actually are.

    2. Anti-school. Always anti- move, mostly anti-monahan. The side will argue that monahan ran the school into the ground, that the professors had no choice but to fight a losing battle, that the school is done with, etc. They will respond to any points made by group one. The quality of their response will range from 1 page treatises to, "You're a moron/hack/chimpanzee."

    3. Anti- Catholic Colleges. These people maintain that a catholic town in the middle of nowhere is both very funny and a devastating blow to the Constitution. They are usually puzzled by the levels of fighting between groups 1 and two, who from the outside seem rather similar (both are predominately catholic, well educated, intelligent, interested in law, and have way to much time on their hands.)

    4. The Conspiracy theorists. This last group is the most interesting. They usually side with the anti-law school camp and hold that monahan is not only attempting to undo education, but squeeze millions out of a sweet florida real estate deal while somehow making himself pope at the same time. Why he would chose to do this is never explained. Maybe he'll buy more cars.

    Just thought I'd contribute this to any other washington monthly readers who are wondering about why anyone cares about our little town.

    P.S. The NDN story is out of date, Barron Collier published, in the NDN, a long article detailing exactly why they will not control the town forever. It basically comes down to: The reporter got his math wrong.

  • Tell the Truth on September 03, 2009 7:25 AM:

    The Ave Enterprise has a PR machine that will fill the comment boxes like "Gentleman Johnnie"

    What you need to know is that the "anti" Monaghan people were once "pro" Monaghan. Of course, it is so bizarre for a University or Law school to even have such monikers. That is how Gentleman Johnnie and his Ave paid people think.

    You can answer a few questions to determine if you too are anit Monaghan:

    1. Do you think faculty can speak freely about issue they deem of public concern? If yes, you are anti Monaghan.

    2. Do you think it normal for the DEAN of a LAW SCHOOL to write DAILY REPORTS to the Chairman of the Board? If no, you are anti Monaghan.

    3. Do you think it rational to move a thriving law school from Ann Arbor to a barely developed town near the Everglades in Florida, 30 miles from the nearest town? If no, you are anti Monaghan.

    To be anti Monaghan means to think for yourself based upon facts and reason.

    To be pro Monaghan means to follow the leader and his latest visions.

  • Listen to Ave on September 03, 2009 8:30 AM:

    If you want to know the Ave mentality best, go to its website and listen to the "voice of Ave Maria" a guy named Orsi.

    He is allegedly a priest.

    If you listen to the radio show he hosts, it will tell you everthing

  • Ave Veteran on September 03, 2009 9:59 AM:

    Conspiracy theorists found out that Fr. Maciel of the Legion of Christ was really a pedophile and had fathered illegitimate children.

    Conspiracy theorists created a story about how Mark Sanford had a mistress.

    Conspiracy theorists fabricated the Oral Roberts president's self-indulgent ways.

    Religion can be used by anyone for any purpose. There are a lot of good and a lot of bad. This article helps us to see the bad. There is a lot, lot more to uncover.

  • Avi Davi Doo on September 04, 2009 11:04 AM:

    A bunch of fourth rate law professors hook up with a rich guy who was unable to get through college, and people consider it newsworthy that the educational institution they created isn't kicking Harvard's butt? What else would you expect? The only thing operating in this project's favor was money, and it seems like there's less of that than previously expected.

  • Ave Veteran on September 04, 2009 4:13 PM:

    The professors they had at the start were very good. They could have been at second or top third tier schools. They had qualifications largely matching faculty at top tier schools. They hired people as good or better to follow on.

    You are right though, the dough was not enough.

    The craziness of the enterprise turned people off. Look at the leadership. Tragic story of megalomania. Ongoing in Florida although the real estate implosion will mercifully bring an end to the enterprise.

  • JohnMcC on September 04, 2009 5:52 PM:

    Oh thank goodness for this. I needed a deep full-throated laugh and the Right-Wing wingnuts came right thru....
    Next? Regent University, America's preeminent Christian University. Thank God we have a inexhaustible source on wackiness.

  • Janice Carter on September 06, 2009 11:36 AM:

    Everything fell apart at Ave Maria when both US News and the Law School 100 dropped Ave Maria to their lowest rungs.

  • Iowa Ryan on September 07, 2009 4:18 PM:

    The article is boring and irrelevant. The comments, however, are quite amusing.

  • SteinL on September 10, 2009 4:21 AM:

    Boring and irrelevant? It's enormously amusing, and tragic. Which is how one would describe anything the GOP and the political right tries to do.

    While reading, I had to look up the journalist, for the sheer excellence of the dry, understated reporting. When reality reaches Vonnegutian proportions, you don't need to embellish.

    This was an excellent read.

    And Mr. Monaghan? He'll find himself in the down elevator after his short meeting with St. Peter.

  • michmac on September 10, 2009 8:05 AM:

    Sounds like what Tom did for the Tigers he would do for the law school. That didn't work out too well either. And the pizza still isn't very good.

  • Lee Hartmann on September 10, 2009 8:25 AM:

    Don't forget Monaghan's involvement with the Thomas More Law Center, which supported such "great" causes as the teaching of intelligent design and interference in the Terri Schiavo case. To no avail.

  • DJ on September 10, 2009 8:31 AM:

    KansasVoter apparently feels that a religious person such as Martin Luther King Jr. is an idiot. Sadly, KansasVoter has merely proved his own idiocy.

  • jprichva on September 10, 2009 1:21 PM:

    Very interesting article.
    One small factoid error: There is no "Lake Sinclair". The lake in question is "Lake St. Clair".

  • Robert on September 22, 2009 12:00 PM:

    Yea, I don't eat pizza. It isn't a healthy choice. It clogs your arteries like religion clogs your brain.

  • Ed on October 07, 2009 11:05 AM:

    Well it looks like the "great businessman" has a second rate intellect and next to nothing when it comes to perspective. Often great wealth is confused with talent and, alas this is yet another thread to add to that sad tapestry. Being a life-long Catholic I have always resented these control freak personalities that border on being apostates in their religious zeal. They act if they have some inside track to the Holy Father, but in reality they and their ilk are more like the Sanhedrin of the Bible. They only positive thing I see is that the Almighty appears to grant Mr. Monaghan his wish, to be broke when he's dead.

    Hosanna in the Highest
    Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord
    Hosanna in the Highest

  • wallamaarif on October 22, 2009 11:39 PM:

    I worked directly with Ave Maria University in the early 2000's, during the time of their planned move to Florida. Ave Maria had come to my organization for a stamp of approval, which meant that we saw all of their financials.

    I wouldn't disclose specifics here even if I could remember them, but we all agreed that this was a university that was more interested in being seen as an elite institution than in doing the legwork that makes an institution elite.

    You can imagine the office conversations we had about this startup religious college, just beginning to settle in and show some promise on the educational front, planning an abrupt move halfway across the country to a gleaming, heavily religious McMansion city that wouldn't even exist yet when they got there, to which they would lure students from both the Ivies and the SEC. (I specifically remember Monaghan believing that Ave Maria would one day rival UF, FSU and Miami.)

  • Liam W. on November 28, 2009 9:35 PM:

    I find it hilarious that (the site that led me to this article) has posted another story attacking AMU via a local news station's coverage complaining that AMU doesn't allow dissenting speech.

    My son is a student at Ave Maria University. The local news reporter and AveWatch looked really silly. The two complaining students are goof-balls looking for attention both saying contradictory things about the school.

    AveWatch has "closed comments" on their story about AMU not allowing dissenting speech. The local Fox News station responsible for the report is also disallowing dissenting views from being posted and refused to interview students who could have helped them learn sooner the goof-balls were just playing them for attention.

    Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law are the best values in education today. Scholarly professors who have time for students combined with a rigorous curriculum are unheard of in most public and private schools today.

    I find it curious you don't seem concerned with all the law schools with even lower bar scores in Michigan. Any reason for this?

  • flcath on January 12, 2010 9:58 AM:

    I don't know that overt religious affiliation is really the way to go with law schools these days: Georgetown, Boston College, and Fordham are three fantastic Catholic law schools--all of which are Jesuit and highly independent of the Church. Meanwhile, look at schools like Regent, CUA, American, et al., and they haven't done as well.

    The one real exception to this rule--Notre Dame, which is pretty overtly religious and still a very, very good law school--gets away with it because it's very old (i.e., it certainly isn't building its reputation from the ground up), and even it has a great deal of independence from the Church (see: Barack Obama commencement controversy).

  • The Lovin Spoonful on April 18, 2010 7:51 PM:

    AM law school had a 100% bar pass rate in FLORIDA

  • Objectivity on May 28, 2010 9:14 AM:

    "Tell It Like It Is" seems to tell it like he or she feels like telling it. I would say that an individual who tells it like it is would not make such accusations without backing them up with facts! "worst student body in America." Very strong words, but where are your facts to back that up. What are you comparing it to? As one of the current students of the Law School I would love to engage "Tell It Like It Is" in a debate of any topic, their choice! "Worst Staff." Do you even know any of the current faculty? Some of our staff worked under Presidents as legal ambassadors for both Republicans and Democrats. "Tell it like it is" your credibility is lost. At the Law we are thought to listen with temperence to others. I have read what you have to say, but your words lack factual and logical backing. Next time you plan to make bold statements, please back them with facts or at least a small amount of research. On a side note, all ABA law schools are required to meet a certain ciricumlum. ALL Law Students learn the same thing, we ALL take the same state bars upon graduation. Our bar passage rate is extremely competative with some of the "highest tier" law schools in America. Just some FACTS to make sure that I tell it like it REALLY is!

  • L. Kalina on June 02, 2010 3:28 PM:

    I have read, and laughed, jealousy is really ugly....

  • bill heimiller on December 25, 2011 4:54 AM:

    The author seems to have taken the last part of her article from Wikipedia, leaving out key context she could've gotten if she bothered to call the dean. Both the school's class size and its selectivety have skyrocketed, as has fund raising. There is nothing to the 'financial test'. Ave Maria Law is clearly back on track.

    Here is the crux, and I know a lot more than this author does about this Law School[it's lake St. Clair, Mariah, not Sinclair]...
    Ave Maria Law is a force, an unfilled need, independent of Monaghan or Safranek. Why do you think Scalia, Bork, or the others got involved? Why do you think critics are going after it? It isn't because it's Catholic or religious, as one may think. It's because it is filling a specific need. A Mormon was even a recent valedictorian.

    key points:
    Ave Maria Law will continue to attract top students and professors.
    Ave Maria Law will continue to have a high percentage of its students selected for key clerkships.
    Prediction: Ave Maria Law graduates, starting in a few years, will have the greatest chance of being on the Supreme Court, other than Harvard or Yale grads.

  • Jackie on December 25, 2011 1:49 PM:

    Ave Maria is one of the least selective and unprestigious law schools in the county. The numbers don't lie: it has some of the worst LSAT scores in the country. I have no idea what the above commenter is on, but I'd like some of it too.