Pie in the Sky
What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.
by Mariah Blake
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.”
Perhaps more importantly, the Florida project would allow Monaghan to indulge his passion for architecture. At the heart of town would sit an Italian-style piazza, flanked on one side by Monaghan’s giant crucifix and a 60,000-square-foot church inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Monaghan boasted at one point that he had sketched the original design for the church on a napkin.) The building was supposed to have the largest seating capacity of any Catholic church in America, though plans were later scaled back.
Monaghan went public with his plans in late 2002, saying in a press conference that he would donate $220 million for a new university in Florida, which he said would eventually have 5,000 students and a world-class golf course that would host the “Catholic Augusta National.” The following fall, the university opened an interim campus in an existing development near Naples.
As work got under way in Florida, financing for Monaghan’s Michigan projects began to evaporate. With only a few months’ notice, he severed ties with St. Mary’s and pulled most of the funding. The school would have been forced to shut down if another Catholic university hadn’t agreed to take it over at the last moment. Even so, it had to cut roughly half its faculty, and many students were forced to drop out because financial aid dried up. Despite promises from Monaghan to keep Ave Maria College open until 2007 so students could finish their degrees, administrators started moving to close it down, too. Professors say they were given a stark choice: move to Florida, or risk losing their jobs. Bewildered parents found themselves fighting back plans to pack up all the library books and ship them south. “It was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, you can’t just take all the books!’ ” recalls Therese Bower, whose son attended the school. Within two years, the student body had dwindled from 230 to around thirty, and Monaghan began offering the remaining students buyouts.
Even as the other campuses descended into turmoil, however, Ave Maria School of Law continued to flourish. The first class, which graduated in 2003, had a 93 percent bar passage rate, the highest of any school in the state. (This prompted the National Review to quip that the University of Michigan—known for churning out powerhouse litigators and Supreme Court justices—had the “second-best law school in Ann Arbor.”) The following year, a staggering 100 percent of Ave Maria law school grads passed the Michigan bar on the first go-round. Many were also going on to high-powered jobs and prestigious clerkships. “We were hitting success after success,” says Joe Falvey, who was then associate dean. “Everything was clicking on all cylinders.”
Why was the law school spared? The answer appears to hang on a technicality. Monaghan initially wanted to uproot it and move it to Florida, along with Ave Maria College. But in mid-2003, the board commissioned a feasibility study, which found the move could put the school’s pending ABA accreditation at risk. Shortly after that, the board announced that it had tabled the idea of relocating. But behind closed doors, planning for the move continued. According to Falvey, who regularly attended board meetings, plans were drawn up for a $30 million law school building on the Florida campus—it would sit just across from “Mansion Row,” a grassy promenade lined with stately homes belonging to university officials.