Ave Maria Born Again

Disclaimer: Austin Ruse’s wife, Cathy, serves on the Ave Maria School of Law Board of Directors. She joined the board after the decision to move was made.

Of all the internecine battles among orthodox Catholics in our time, among the nastiest was the Ave Maria Law School war. The administration eventually won, but only after years and at great cost.

Businessman Tom Monaghan and law professor Bernard Dobranski founded Ave Maria School of Law because it had become clear that the country and the Church needed a law school with a distinct Catholic identity.

The school started with great fanfare. Monaghan’s generosity provided almost 100 percent scholarships to the first students enrolled. That and Dobranski’s connections to elite legal minds like Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia brought legal scholars onto the faculty ranks and ensured the school got off to a rocket start.

Bright students with high LSAT scores lined up for a free legal education informed by Catholic Social Teaching. This paid off in sky-high bar pass rates, successful placement of grads in prestigious judicial clerkships, and easy American Bar Association accreditation.

It became clear, however, that the town mothers of Ann Arbor, Michigan did not like Ave Maria or their plans to expand. They particularly did not like a huge statue of the Blessed Mother that Monaghan wanted to erect on the edge of town, so Monaghan began looking around for more welcoming environs. He settled on Naples, Florida.

The argument for the move centered on what the board considered a more welcoming environment in Naples and the fact there was a dearth of legal education in the area. They said the legal community of lawyers and judges would welcome a law school in that part of Florida.  What’s more, Monaghan was starting Ave Maria University in Naples and it made sense to have the law school nearby.

But a number of faculty and students balked at even the thought of moving the school from Michigan to Naples. Some faculty understandably balked at the idea of moving themselves and their families so far away, some of them after recent moves to Ann Arbor.

But most especially it seems they hated the idea that Monaghan and the Board of Directors got to make such a decision that the faculty and students – oddly – thought was theirs. They latched onto process. They said the decision had to do with school governance.

They also charged that Monaghan only wanted to move because he had bought a bunch of land and wanted to start a town where he would clean up on the sale of lots.

      An example of what passed for humor among Ave Marias dissidents

Finally, the revolutionaries saw the board as little more than running dog lackeys of the plundering capitalist Monaghan.  If that sounds kind of Marxist/radical, so did their tactics, which turned out to be rather totalitarian.

Anyone who deviated from the party line became anathema and deserved nothing but scorn. The revolutionary tribunal was an exquisitely hateful blog set up by students and alums called Fumare. The brave boys who set it up hid behind aliases like Advocatus Militaris, Thales, and Boko Fittleworth from which they launched a relentless attack on their enemies.

Here are a few examples of their level of discourse. In December 2006 Advocatus called the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue a “whore” for working with Monaghan-founded Legatus, a group for Catholic CEOs.

Advocatus liked the word “whore” and worked it hard. In February 2007, he wrote, “What is not arguable is that this continuing story involves whores and people getting screwed.” Advocatus wasn’t alone. In December, 2006 “Casimir Pulaski” wrote, “Now, while there is still a chance, the remaining Board members need to halt the madman. It’s ok, call him a lunatic, we all know he’s one.”

To give you an idea of this oh-so-Catholic crowd, one female professor told me that among the revolutionaries were male alums who had regularly harassed her when they were students because they believed a female should not be teaching law. On the one hand, they held themselves up as uber-Catholics (while putting in the always charitable knife). One board member joked she would get anonymous emails from these morally superior boys – “Rot in Hell, bitch!” – signed,  “Yours in Christ.”

Other nasty, but more substantive things happened. An anonymous complaint by some faculty to the American Bar Association challenged the accreditation of the law school. Faculty of the school were trying to deliver a deathblow to their own school. Some faculty and students actively discouraged prospective students from attending. There were lawsuits, firings, and tenures denied.  All fodder for the war.

Not all those who opposed the move went crazy. Gerry Bradley of Notre Dame quietly left the board, as did others. But the lawsuits and recriminations only petered out when the move was complete and the school began to regain its footing. Fumare is still up. but the most recent post was months ago.

Professor Gene Milhizer took over as Dean from Bernard Dobranski. Milhizer takes a diplomatic approach, refusing to say anything negative about those who opposed the move. Many of them, in his view, even some of the vociferous ones, have reached out in recent years and sought rapprochement with the law school. He hopes all of them do. He says all are welcome – and he means it.

The school stands at record enrollment. After a dip in incoming LSAT scores and in bar pass rates, the numbers are climbing. The dean is proud of the faculty they continue to attract.  Many alums and professors are advisers to the Vatican. And most of all,  Milhizer proudly says the school is now self-sufficient. After years of getting by to a large extent from the largesse of Tom Monaghan, Ave Maria School of Law stands on its own financial feet.

You ought to visit the campus in Naples. It’s beautiful. And you ought to sit down with faculty and students. They still are carrying out an amazing and much needed experiment in truly Catholic legal education.   


Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.