Pie in the Sky
What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.
by Mariah Blake
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.”
Meanwhile, in June, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Ave Maria School of Law had failed its financial responsibility test, the only law school in the nation to do so. Even more troubling, the school ranked sixth to last among all American institutions of higher learning on the department’s financial responsibility index, thanks partly to its multimillion-dollar deficit. With its finances in disarray, the school has shelved plans for the $30 million building across from Mansion Row. When Ave Maria School of Law finally opened for business in Florida this August, it was in a former retirement home on the outskirts of Naples.
Many who have lived through the turmoil at the law school and Monaghan’s other educational institutions believe that the root problem is his inability to grasp the difference between running a fast-food business and an institution of higher learning. “He views these schools as franchises that he can open and close at will like a pizza shop,” says Thomas Woods, a former dean of St. Mary’s. “He has this Cartesian view of the world—that you can dream up an idea in your head and impose it on the plastic substance of reality, like a cookie cutter on dough. But academic life is messier than that. Things have to be done by negotiation and persuasion. They have to be worked out over time.” Unfortunately for the professors and students who wagered their futures on his educational ventures, that kind of give and take simply isn’t Monaghan’s style.
Tim Murphy contributed reporting to this story.