What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.
At one point early on, Monaghan invited the law school board to Naples for a stay at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, a four-star hotel with a tiki bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. While there, the group met with Barron Collier executives, who laid out their plans, including those for the new law school building. By this time Charlie Rice, a founding board member and professor emeritus at Notre Dame, was beginning to have grave doubts about the project. “I thought, This is going to be a train wreck,” he recalls. “We’re going to uproot this thriving law school and move it to the campus of some nonexistent university before we even know if the whole thing is viable?” According to attendees, and a string of memos, Rice suggested that the board agree to consult faculty and students before committing to a move, and give them at least four years’ notice. He also pressed for a secure endowment, so the school wouldn’t be dependent on one person. Monaghan came unglued. (He later sent Rice a letter saying, “I am writing to express my embarrassment over my inability to control my emotions.”) After that, the struggle between the two men only grew more bitter. According to Falvey and Rice, Monaghan eventually began threatening to pull funding for the school if the board refused to move it to Florida. Rice, meanwhile, grew increasingly shrill in his resistance. At one point he wrote Monaghan saying, “If you succeed in your effort to compel the Board to vote to relocate, you will find that you have relocated merely a name and an empty shell.” (Monaghan did not respond to requests for an interview.)
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.)
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